Interconnectivity and Intent in Marketing: Tom Rusling’s Audience Key

by | Jun 23, 2022 | Business, Marketing

Entrepreneurship often begins with taking a risk and riding or making a wave that has not reached the public yet. 

Tom Rusling comes from a liberal arts background and has a love for language and storytelling. He merged that creative side with an MBA in quantitative finance to enter the digital marketing space, where he has now worked for 18 years.

“Search marketing was just starting to get on people’s radar,” he states, reminiscing about his initial debut in the once-niche field during the time the internet had briefly fallen out of favor. “Since 2003, I’ve been an in-house marketing director for a travel company and a consultant for search marketing.” 

Then in 2008, Rusling joined the agency world, where he’s been ever since.

Rusling directs his own agency, Reflexive Media, and in 2020 founded Audience Key, the world’s first tech-enabled platform that supports the end-to-end processes of content marketing strategy. 

The Inspiration for Audience Key

During his first seven or so years working in the agency world, Rusling spent much of his time on off-page link-building strategies.

“Companies were coming to us looking for ways to increase their rankings through link building,” he explains.

But when they asked these companies, “What are the target pages? Where are your key opportunities that you can focus on?” they were almost always met with the response: “You tell us.”

After setting hundreds of waypoints and destinations for clients, it became apparent that identifying key opportunities was a pain point for companies – one that many didn’t even perceive as a problem since there were no consistent or standardized strategies. 

Even in the era where search engine marketing was not yet ubiquitous, Rusling saw a demand that needed to be met. He and his Audience Key team set their eyes on being able to empower other marketing teams and agencies to leverage their tech-enabled framework for strategic content marketing. 

Determining Audience Key’s Target Audience

At the start, Rusling thought Audience Key’s target market would be business owners and chief marketing officers. “But I realized our target market – who we need to speak to – are the people in the trenches doing the work,” he says. 

Between demand gen, lead gen, and getting to that first page of Google, search engine marketing is often spread thin. Driving organic traffic on a search engine that seemingly changes its SEO ranking algorithms at a whim can be a challenge for SaaS founders, especially since effective SEO requires a long-term dedicated budget and churn of optimized content. 

Because of the complexities of SEO content creation, many startups will default to focusing on keyword research and compiling a list of keywords with their search volume.

“That [focus on keyword research] was a lot of the inspiration for Audience Key,” Rusling says. “Don’t build a keyword list; build a database of intentions and use keyword data to think about that the right way.”

Rusling likens the inspiration behind Audience Key to the motivation behind Google. In fact, in his book The Search, John Battelle coined the idea that Google was building a database of intentions.

“We thought about that saying for a particular company and their marketing program,” he states. “Can we think about building a database of intentions for their target audience?”

“In an ideal state, a company’s website shows up on the first page of search results,” says Rusling. The key then becomes assessing how many different keywords there are, the company’s current coverage, and how it compares to its competitors.

“Like a database of intentions, you are then able to put all kinds of attribution on the keywords to understand and make connections,” he explains. “When you do that and take the time, it’s not a list of 1,000 or 2,000 keywords – it’s 15,000, 20,000, or 25,000, and sometimes much larger.”

“Now, you have a total addressable market, and that starts to build out your content gaps,” says Rusling.

Evergreen SEO Content Creation Advice for SaaS Companies

Rusling notes that there is still plenty of confusion regarding organizing and creating content. 

“You have to think about what content is more evergreen and what is more transitory,” he says.

Educational evergreen content that centers around a recurring search should take center stage, according to Rusling.

“You should be thinking about building out robust resource guides that are static in their navigation and taxonomy and afford you the ability to create parent-child relationships in how you organize your content,” he explains.

While blogging has its place, Rusling says it’s considered to be more transitory content – content that, like colorful confetti, is impactful when initially thrown into the air but quickly falls flat.

“You start writing all these independent blog posts, and then over time they get shoved down deeper, and they’re not connected other than maybe through tag pages or something that people don’t use that often effectively either,” he elaborates.

Rusling also cautions against over-engineering what should be a simple marketing website, as overcomplicating things with fancy technology may make it more difficult for marketers to do their job effectively.

“When it comes to your marketing website, use a basic CMS almost always. WordPress is our recommendation for that. And then put no barriers in front of being able to iterate and publish content constantly.

On the apparent arbitrary changes of search engine algorithms, Rusling reassures SaaS founders that the frequent algorithm changes are about reinforcing sites that do the right thing the right way. If you stay on the path of creating high-quality, data-driven content, your successes won’t be lost in a single algorithm shift. 

On Scaling, Disconnectivity and Recalibration

“Keep simple things simple, but then also keep the complex possible,” Rusling says, recalling the helpful advice he received from the marketing leader Mike Roberts of SpyFu. “We didn’t try to solve too much for scalability early on.” 

He explains that Audience Key’s team instead focused on building out essential feature sets and getting early feedback to evolve continuously. They wanted the correct fundamentals established first. Scalability came later. 

Rusling has worked to create alignment between the stakeholder supporters (e.g., the CFO) and the stakeholder contributors (e.g., contractors and marketing workers). 

“The supporters are the ones who are probably making the decisions of resource allocation and company direction, whereas the contributors are the ones who are doing the work and lobbying to do it better, smarter, bigger,” he says. 

In the post-mortem of a content marketing strategy, there is often a disconnect between the CFO and the marketing team contributors. That disconnect is typically caused by how marketing successes and failures are rarely pinpointed clearly enough for actionable steps going forward. 

CFOs often expect to see quantitative data that makes sense and allows for actionable strategies. Why did one strategy work while another didn’t?

“A lot of times, it’s more like things worked to an extent,” Rusling explains. “We’ll map 40-50 keywords to a concept that inspires the creation. Over time, you measure that and discover that a certain set achieves your goal; others fall short. And now you either have to do one of two things. You have to re-optimize a page, or more often, you need to take some of those things that fell short and remap them to a more focused granular strategy.” 

With Audience Key, organizations can organize and map their content strategy and use the platform’s reporting to understand whether their efforts have been effective or not.  

The Importance of Building One Holistic System

Keyword mapping takes a lot of time, and there are often too many platforms and documents in the mix. Whether a SaaS founder uses a platform of solutions like Audience Key, Rusling recommends building one holistic system that combines intent identification, keyword mapping and SEO strategies. 

Each step of SEO shouldn’t exist in a vacuum, isolated from others. When organizing data for keyword mapping, spreadsheets get filled. And then, the strategy briefs for content creation are thrown into a Google doc. 

“But now these two things aren’t talking to each other; they’re not connected,” he says. “Then, once you create that content, you want to juxtapose it against your keyword research to see if it was effective.” 

Rusling points out that now you’re probably forced to jump between many different platforms, project management software, and SEO tools. It’s tough, and it’s inefficient. The solution exists in connecting all the different content marketing steps into one holistic system. That’s the splash of magic that Audience Key adds to the content marketing process. 

“Now you have reporting infused back into strategic planning,” he says. “The strength is also that you are using your data to fuel your decisions moving forward. I think about it like decision analytics for content marketing and strategy. It’s putting the data in front of the right people at the right time to make good decisions and get feedback. The connected tissue [of a holistic system] creates a feedback loop that is so powerful and otherwise kind of impossible to do.” 

Visit Audience Key to learn more about the tech-enabled content marketing system.

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