Alex Birkett is a Sr Growth Marketer at HubSpot and co-founder of Omniscient Digital.
He’s based in Austin, Texas, but travels almost half of the year.
Alex started his career working at early stage startups, first joining LawnStarter (TechStars 2014) right after demo-day and several months before raising their seed-funding.
Next, he joined CXL where he worked on growth and content under the tutelage of Peep Laja. During his time at CXL, he also helped launch and grow CXL Institute, a training platform for digital marketers and analysts.
He is currently on the acquisition team at HubSpot where he focuses on freemium growth. In addition, he co-founded a content marketing agency with colleague and former Content Crafters feature David Ly Khim.
How did you get to where you are today? What’s your origin story?
At one point in time, I thought I wanted to be a musician. I played in a band in high school, and despite going to a tiny school, we always had tons of people at our shows, way more than the other bands (even though they were objectively better, musically). There were also a few key indicators that I was a better business person than a musician.
First, because we were young, we couldn’t play most venues (bars) around the area. So we got creative and started renting out the city hall (which you could do to host your own events), and then we’d rent audio equipment from local music stores and invite the biggest regional/local band we could think of. We were a marketing machine, producing our own (hilarious) concert posts, doing quite elaborate online campaigns when Myspace was a big thing, and getting a few hundred people per show (and a healthy profit, in addition to paying our regional bands). I was doing some super early ‘growth hacking,’ as we were of course quite resource strapped, so I learned to be ‘relentlessly resourceful’.
Second, I entered university as a music major and quickly realized everyone else had been playing their instrument seriously and I mainly enjoyed playing punk rock songs for fun.
I then focused my attention on getting really good at marketing and entrepreneurship, reading as much as I could and starting little businesses and side projects throughout college. After college, I joined the earliest stage startup possible, linking up with LawnStarter pre-seed funding and working on the scrappiest marketing efforts possible.
Later, I joined CXL, where I worked on content and growth (the blog was a massive channel), and then later on helped launch and market CXL Institute.
Now I’m at HubSpot where I work on user acquisition growth, but I also run a premium content marketing agency called Omniscient Digital. More importantly, I’m still practicing blues scales on my guitar, but only for fun.
How did you get into content marketing?
I was always pretty decent at writing. I loved English Literature class, and I studied advertising and public relations (within the Journalism school).
I wanted to get into tech, but didn’t know how to break in, so I just started blogging during college. If I read a book, I would write a summary. After an internship, I would do a “lessons learned” recap. This was just my way of getting attention and securing internships in college, but it was my own micro-version of content marketing.
Eventually, I joined LawnStarter where we leveraged content marketing to build links and domain authority to rank our hundreds of service pages (we had one for each zip code basically, so we’d have a landing page for, example “Austin Lawn Care” and then write Austin-themed content to get local links to that cluster).
While I learned a ton at LawnStarter, it was a very specific content strategy. CXL taught me how to build an audience and a brand (and a business) with content. I’ve already written a ton about what I learned at CXL, but I definitely wouldn’t have had the career I have without that experience.
Peep taught me a ton about both content marketing and CRO, the two areas of marketing I would call my specialties today (the narrow and deep skills in the T Shaped Marketer model).
How do your expertises in CRO and content marketing work together?
Content marketing is sort of a channel or a strategy, and CRO is an operating system.
CRO, to me, is a methodology by which you’re always trying to discover a better way to do things, whether that is a better way to design your landing page CTAs or a better way to recommend related products to an ecommerce audience.
It’s experimentation-centric (whether or not you’re actually running classic A/B tests). It’s heavily focused on knowledge sharing, trustworthy data, and data-driven decision making. It’s an iterative process where each feedback loop should improve your outputs (conversions, conversion rate, user experience, whatever), resulting in compound interest.
Content marketing is one of the most effective ways to build out a customer acquisition strategy. As a standalone, you can build a robust email list by blogging. A good example of this is Backlinko.
You can also acquire users directly from content. Good examples of this are content-based sites that monetize via affiliates like Cup of Kava.
As a complement to other channels, content marketing can help you lower customer acquisition costs and build a difficult-to-compete-with brand moat.
Getting more creative, content marketing can help you build relationships with potential partners, customers, or just interesting people you want to get in touch with.
Wordable’s own Content Crafters series (meta, huh?) is a great example of this. This series was a great reason for Jim to reach out to me and get in touch.
What can CRO and content marketing people learn from each other?
The best CRO and content marketing people have these things in common with each other:
- They’re creative and question their assumptions
- They’re data-driven and willing to kill their babies
- They’re focused on results, but willing to think outside the box to get their
- They’re playing the long game, but won’t shy away from quick wins and low hanging fruit
Bad content marketing people and bad CROs tend to have similar bad habits:
- They seek to validate their initial assumptions and opinions, not to explore net new (and improved) paths
- They hold on too long to ideas that just don’t work out
- They engage in BS short term hacks to “trick” their audience (‘dark patterns’ in CRO parlance, ‘click bait’ in content).
Beyond that, I’d rather not generalize too much, but CROs tend to have a much closer eye on impact and measurement, and content marketers tend to fend off questions of ROI with answers of ‘storytelling’ or ‘brand awareness,’ despite these often being relatively meaningless justifications.
On the flip side, CROs can sometimes myopically focus on micro-conversions or very small parts of the overall business, which can downplay the impact of the process and experimentation more generally. CROs also, despite their reluctance to admit it, are often some of the most gut-opinion-driven folks in a marketing org. I’d say I’ve generally seen content marketers to be more ‘holistic’ in their thinking, in that they’ll typically include product marketing, acquisition, brand, etc. in their content plans.
So CROs could think bigger and more holistically, and content marketers could measure better and care more about money.
What’s the biggest mistake people make in content marketing?
Most content needs to be way better than you think it needs to be to rank, and especially to gather attention and respect. It also typically needs more promotion and link building than you’d think.
So I think the biggest mistake people make is in underestimating the cost or the investment required to make content work.
Don’t get me wrong; content marketing is worth it for many businesses.
But for some businesses, it’s not, and it’s definitely not right at every stage of growth. It’s certainly not something you can test out in the time you’d get data back from a Facebook Ads campaign, so make sure you’re ready to pour some money and time into this thing.
How long does SEO take to work?
If you’re HubSpot, you can write an article and it will rank tomorrow. If you’re everyone else, think in terms of a 3-9 month time scale. It all depends obviously on what you’re trying to rank. Like, if you’re trying to rank a high traffic and high intent piece like the “Best landing page software in 2020,” even if you’re HubSpot you need to budget some time and link building into it.
However, even my own personal website can rank for a keyword with like 50 MSV and relatively low CPC/competition if I write a good enough piece. I ranked “content marketing analytics” in less than a month back when I had a domain rating of like 35, just because it was a great piece.
Back to the question: how long does SEO take to work? It depends. The answer to that question is the product of an analyst or strategist’s work, and you should never trust someone in a roundup post who gives you too clean of an answer without knowing your specifics.
When should a company start thinking about content marketing and SEO?
You can think about content marketing and SEO whenever you want – before you launch your company (Peep has talked a lot about building the blog before the business) or many years down the road. You also never have to think about content marketing and SEO if you don’t want to. There have certainly been Small Giants who have built small and sustainable businesses without ever blogging.
In general, if you do eventually see yourself building out an organic marketing machine (blogging/SEO/content/whatever), I’d start thinking about investing at the earliest possible juncture.
It takes time to build these assets, so just like financial investing, the earlier you can start, the better.
HubSpot started blogging before everyone else did years ago, and now they’re playing with house money (i.e. they can rank whatever they want with the domain authority they’ve built over the years).
Agree or disagree: More data is better. Why?
The amount of data you need to make a decision should correspond to the risk level of that decision, and also the honest amount of marginal uncertainty you can reduce about that decision through more data collected.
In most cases, what people want isn’t ‘more data,’ but rather better data or a better way of using that data to make decisions.
Nassim Taleb put it well:
“More data – such as paying attention to the eye colors of the people around when crossing the street – can make you miss the big truck. When you cross the street, you remove data, anything but the essential threat.”
Overhyped or underhyped: Experimentation. Why?
Experimentation is the best way to unleash innovation while capping the risk or downside of suboptimal actions and decisions.
The way many organizations run experiments could use some work, but experimentation as a concept is wildly underhyped. Learning about experimentation will make you better at most things you do, including thinking.
You’re a self-proclaimed generalist. Tell us about that.
I”m not actually sure I’m a generalist because I think the marketing field has partitioned off specialties that aren’t actually specialties, but are actually just made up categories designed to fast-track personal career growth (especially for consultants).
I’m also definitely obsessed with and good at business experimentation (conversion optimization) and content marketing, which many would consider specialties.
However, I’ll agree that I’m a generalist in the more broad sense of the word. I like to grow businesses – don’t care at all how I do that. I’ve also overindexed on ‘building block’ skills, like writing, persuasion, data and analytics, statistics, logic, and communication, all of which can form the roots of a specialized skill (I do suck at most design-related tasks still though).
In my opinion, working on the building blocks makes it easier to become a specialist anyway. They’re like the Gen-Eds of business and growth skills.
For example, you can certainly become a specialist on a given platform, like Facebook Ads. Most people know way more than me at Facebook Ads. However, if I were to drop everything and work on a business that was primarily growing via Facebook Ads, I have no doubts I’d be able to get really good at the platform in under a year. In the deep sense of the word (think chess, jiu jitsu, or painting), is something really a ‘specialty’ if you can become excellent at it in 6-12 months?
I think I’m above average at three things:
- Data analysis
- Relationships and connecting
These ‘building blocks’ have helped me get good at specific skills like content marketing, SEO, experimentation, CRO, etc. (all of which, again, I’d argue are more amalgamations of multiple different skills, and not actually the ‘specialties’ we think of them as).
How has your career played out as a generalist?
I’m enjoying it, for the most part.
What advice do you have for other generalists hoping to grow their career and develop their skill set?
This isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but I don’t quite feel comfortable giving career advice, especially to ‘generalists’ as I’m not totally sure what that is or if I am one.
However, these things have helped me a lot:
- Read a ton, mostly from older books (Lindy Effect)
- Get really good at communication, especially one specific form of it (writing, speaking, etc.). Read “Never Split the Difference,” “Influence,” and “The Adweek Copywriting Handbook.”
- Don’t ever be afraid to reach out and meet someone for coffee or lunch
- Understand, really understand, data and what its utility is in a business context. The best tactical way to do this is to learn SQL because you learn the underlying structure of data, not just what is surfaced to you in a BI tool.