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Q&A: TopRank CEO Lee Odden on integrating SEO, social media and content

As more businesses are jumping on the content train, we had a chance to talk to Lee Odden who just released his first book Optimize: How to attract and engage more customers by integrating SEO, Social Media and content marketing.

Odden gave us the scoop on why he wrote Optimize, how we can start integrating search, content and social media across our organization and how we can get the buy in we need for it to be a success.

You’ve recently come out with your first book, Optimize. Why did you decide to write it and why now?

I’ve resisted writing a book as I have a popular blog. We’ve been around 8 years and have 50,000 subscribers and it was achieving the kind of objectives that a book would have. But then I started to think a bit more about the process. I already had a channel with my blog but after talking to other authors, I thought writing a book would focus and challenge me to not only be factual but educational and entertaining at the same time.

Really it was the right time and the right moment. I was at the BlogWorld conference and saw that Wiley was publishing all the good books on marketing. After a year of talking to me about writing a book for them, I decided to go for it.

There is something about having that tangible book. I think I’m a little bit smarter by going through the writing process. It has helped me organize my thoughts in a different way and it has given me another platform to bring together my experience of 15 years in marketing. But what has really blown my mind is the number of people who have wanted to help promote it. They’re coming to me in fact.

Your book is about integrating SEO, social media and content marketing. Why do you think businesses aren’t already doing this? 

The integration angle has a couple of different perspectives. First of all, why are all these three elements not being used together in a marketing context? Well, the disciplines are divergent. In SEO, they’ve jumped on the content marketing bandwagon in response to the changes that came with the Penguin and Panda updates that Google put in place to bring good content to the forefront.

But their approach is about the practicalities, such as adding more web pages that have more than 200 words. But content creators use content to guide readers through the sales cycle so the content is a lot more intentional. It’s not just a hook in the water but it’s a tour guide. 

As for social media, SEO thinks social is a great distribution channel that will help to get more links while those in social media want to grow the network and build communities. This aspect of cross purposes is why integration may not be happening yet. 

Some of it also has to do who is putting the money in. Content is often treated as just a subordinate to marketing and PR. But why wouldn’t I in marketing have a process where I understand customers and be aware of what they need (to create better content for them) and keep them as a customer and maybe even turn them into an evangelist?

We have to consider to what extent will search bring our target customers to our content. To what extent will social do that? More and more companies will go to this integrated approach in time.  Right now SEO is about rankings and traffic. Content folks think about press releases and blog posts, and how to get them out. Social is thinking about engagement.

The main departments that produce content are often seen as HR, PR, marketing/sales and customer service. If we thought about SEO across content, we could get our social content seeded further or we could optimize job listings to further help HR find suitable candidates.

One of the main content areas often neglected is customer service. A customer will probably first type an error into Google. So you should make sure support information is available through search or social using those key words. These are not revenue generators. But in the case of customer service, you are making the self serve option easier instead of tying up call centers. In the long view, this will save your company money.

People search for all sorts of reasons and if you apply this holistically in your organization and make it part of content production, then you can extend your reach. Every piece of content is now a hook in the water. A job listing may not be a sale but it can help increase your search rankings overall. It’s a pretty valuable thing.

I think social shares and links are like electricity. The more that are happening, it’s like adding more electricity to your site. It makes it shine for the search engines and for people in social networks and beyond.

What are the first steps to starting the integration process?

You first have to have a sense of what you want to achieve. What are your objectives? Sometimes people don’t know what is possible. So you need to research. First start with an audit and competitive research. Look at search readiness, content and what your competition is doing to create a baseline.

Further to auditing your company, also do research into your target audience and what their needs are. One of the first things to find out is the sense of what your customers want. You’ll find out what the universe of the customer base is but then also look at how to segment them. What is the context that they would need your product? How would they use it, when would they want it, what would they get out of it? By answering those questions, you’ll have an unbelievable content strategy. By understanding customer pain points and goals, you can define content. When content is defined, everything else can follow.

It’s also important to identify who the ideal customers are and who aren’t. You don’t want to optimize for those who will cost more money to get. By understanding customers, you can understand what is possible.

What are some of the common mistakes companies make when developing an integration strategy?

The main one is leading with SEO and tactics as opposed to leading with how you answer the question why. People tell stories about how they use specific tools or how they are planning on using it and have tactical questions about best practice. But once you start peeling back the onion, companies often realize they don’t know why they want to use those tactics or tools.

I’m all for experimentation. If you have a visually focused business (fabric or shoes, for example), it may make sense for you to try Pinterest. But you have to to know the difference between the tactical and the stuff you’re just experimenting with. By not answering that why and understanding the connection between tactics and how that moves you toward your wider business goals, this will lead to costly mistakes. 

One challenge organizations have is getting buy in. How can those teams in charge of social and search integrate themselves across the organization?

This is one of the most common and important questions. People tend to see things in terms of what they already know. If an executive has a way in which to consume content or metrics, this is what they use to determine what works. So align an integrated initiative that affects those metrics and do things that will motivate them. If that senior staff member is all about revenue, work with sales and uncover low hanging fruit that can dramatically effect sales conversation. You could then get a lot more buy in to extend that approach.

Emotions are also really powerful. Fear or embarrassment are not my favorites to use. But if you go in and say “Look at this gap, it’s embarrassing and here is a plan to change that gap,” it can be effective. I much prefer using opportunity: “Oh look what the competition are missing out on. Here is an opportunity for us.”

What are the metrics of success and how should teams measure this integrated approach?

The main metrics are determined by key performance indicators (KPIs) and business outcomes. Business outcomes will be common across all the areas but KPIs have to be different. 

SEO will most likely look at rankings, visits, and traffic from links while social look at engagement, links, citations, network size, and the rate of network growth. Content will look at syndication, propagation, and assigning value to content.

A great benchmark measurement takes, for instance, the number of pages, the conversion rate from them and traffic. You can then calculate a measurement of what each new page will give depending on the type of content it contains. This will then enable you to do forecasting which is key. 

You can overlay KPIs relevant to the different tactics you are using on top of key business outcomes over time. As these are all content producing areas that have different metrics and different audiences, this approach will help you improve the  effectiveness of what you are already doing.

What’s your top tip for search, social and content teams to apply?

There is a lot of competition for people’s time. It’s not just companies that are vying for your customers attention but you’re also competing against user generated content. Most of all you need empathy with customers and how they interact with content. I usually think of this happening in three steps:

1) Discovery: Understanding how your customers understand and interact with content 

2) Consumption: Knowing what their preferences for content consumption are

3) Sharing: Comprehend what will lead them to action (i.e. to purchase or to share) and build your system to allow for this. One person who engages with your content may not be a purchaser but it could be shared with someone who does what to buy.


Further info: As the CEO of TopRank Online Marketing, Odden has had 14 years of internet marketing under his belt specializing in the implementation of content, search, email and social media marketing. When not blogging on TopRank, he writes a column called “Social Media Smarts” for ClickZ. 

If you are interested in reading more about how Lee Odden thinks we should integrate SEO, social media, and content, you can go to for details on his new book.

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