Growth Hacking Interview Series #133: Suzanne Baran
Suzanne Baran is an industry-leading Content Strategy and Digital Marketing expert. During her 18-year career she has driven digital strategy for the world’s most beloved brands such as Yahoo!, AT&T, Intel, Toyota, Cisco, Scottrade, DirecTV, FIJI Water, Sony, and other Fortune 500 and 100 companies. She helps brands become better, more efficient publishers.
Suzanne has established content strategy as an essential practice for agencies across many industries. She’s a two-time panelist at the Digital Growth Summit, a guest speaker for Women in Technology International, and a seminar co-leader at General Assembly.
Her recent talks include Content Governance Essentials for Innovation Enterprise. Upcoming speaking engagements at Multiple Listings Services focus on helping real estate agents get leads via social channels. She’s been featured in podcasts and publications and hailed by Hubspot as one of “15 Smart Marketers.” Suzanne has been named #4 of The 100 Tech and Women Business Speakers You Need at Your Next Event (The NextWeb).
Some of her career highlights include managing and programming content for one of the world’s largest audiences: 189 million unique visitors at Yahoo! She exceeded impression totals for Yahoo’s TV property from 850,000 to 18 million in three weeks.
Suzanne has created and co-created content strategy departments and teams at top interactive agencies including Level Studios | Rosetta, Brighter Collective, Single Grain and Saatchi & Saatchi.
At AT&T Advertising Solutions, she created and implemented the first content marketing plan across five digital platforms. She managed vendor relationships, provided SEO, editorial and strategic recommendations on a shoestring budget. The audience has grown from 3,000 PVs daily to nearly 500K.
An avid fitness enthusiast, Suzanne is an amateur bodybuilder who has shared workout equipment with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Mecca – Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach. She recently competed at the Ferrigno Legacy bodybuilding event in October. Suzanne also volunteers for the Sokka Gakki International, a lay Buddhist peacekeeping organization.
How did you start out as a marketer?
Post 9-11, I moved to sunny Los Angeles to pursue a better overall lifestyle. I was a financial journalist in NYC and lost half my office in the attacks. Other deaths occurred the same year, notably my brother and best friend.
When I arrived in LA, financial reporter opportunities were in short supply. I didn’t have a network and began working at a series of odd jobs, one as an office manager for models and photographers. Shortly thereafter, I delved into magazine subscription sales for Magmall and learned SEO best practices in 2002.
Yahoo took interest after my two-year stint at The Hollywood Reporter and I was hired in 2007 as the lead entertainment homepage content programmer. I created, promoted, packaged and measured content for interior properties like movies, music, games, omg, kids, TV and others. Our audience grew to 189 million unique visitors on a monthly basis and each property began vying for homepage real estate to drive traffic to their interior pages. I negotiated prioritization and strategy to grow each property to the #1 destination, beating competitors like AOL and MSN.
Content boot camp at Yahoo set the stage for my future.
Looking back what is your hardest struggle when it came to delivering results?
Herding cats is what I might call the main impediment to marketing strategy unity. The ability to commandeer a team and get buy in from silo-ed departments is a difficult undertaking. No matter how large or small an organization may be, a silo mentality is a top-down issue, which trickles down from management.
It’s frequently a business model within marketing and sales teams where some assignments or projects exist in both groups. Gearing a company or department toward a single goal can foster collaboration and a sense of like-minded purpose. This fuels interaction and in turn, conversions and results.
How did you get your first client back then, and what kind of service did you do for them?
My first official freelance client was a Disney.com’s Family page. They requested research and written snippets on all competitors in the space. It was offered to me during an interview with the company for a position I didn’t receive.
What do you find most rewarding about what you do?
My greatest passion and joy in my work is inspiring potential consumers to try a service or product they otherwise might not have discovered. Hopefully, it suits their needs and solves their personal pain points. Optimizing content, messaging, their experience and journey online is always a fulfilling enterprise.
Influence aside, to lead is to inspire. When I help brands socialize their message through governance, Omni-channel strategy, workflows, style guides, SEO, SEM, CMS migrations – you name it – this creates a brand new ecosystem. All the pieces within the assembly line converge to form the perfect experience. The art of learning to socialize different industries’ and business verticals’ messages promotes their content in the form a universal ecosystem. If users return for this content, and create a relationship with a certain experience, well that’s a huge win.
We have a lot of readers who are bent on becoming freelancers, aside from freelancing how else can someone earn online, and what is your advice?
Be willing to take risks and talk to everyone. Use meetups, LinkedIn, friends and family to connect you to mentors. Study your field and abandon any sense of entitlement you have about boosting your ego to land work. In LA vs. NY, it’s more whom you know sometimes and less what you know. Become a champion of a cause, product or service and submit proposals for blogging, writing, etc. to companies and brands that inspire you.
If you were given the chance to build your career all over again what would you do differently so that you will achieve your dreams faster?
I might have pursued a consulting career earlier on if I knew what I know now. I might have taken more classes in diplomacy and politics because most of the corporate world is about surviving turf wars vs. doing the work and as a doer, you get overlooked even if your work is stellar and has a lasting impact on a company’s legacy.
What recently developed marketing strategy, technique or tool interests you the most right now?
We’re in the dawn of a new era of computing—The Cognitive Era. This new age will change the way we make decisions as consumers and technology will play a key role in helping humans make quicker decisions, at that. With this, we will usher in a new way to create, manage, and deliver content.
Cognitive computing and automation involves self-learning via data mining, recognizing patterns, and language that mankind uses to imitate the way our brans work. Essentially, it simulates human thought processes in a computerized manner.
Adept at calculations and number crunching, machines will now take on the final frontier – cognitive systems. Understanding our natural ways of communicating and speaking, computers will be able to recognize unique objects nested in images, too. Search engines will transform to voice-enabled queries. We will sit in our cars and speak our requests to a multitude of different tech systems and products.
Companies will need to be more agile than ever to leverage their existing systems into a salient plan for digital transformation. Governance will play a large role in building upon a stable foundation. Master data management is crucial as well.
Of course, a savvy marketer will contribute best to this era of innovation. A growth hacker who is by definition digitally successful (not simply savvy) –combines creativity, big data, and techie skillsets. Traditional marketing is brand awareness centric, but growth hacking is centered on creating a massive cultural wave of experimentation, which garners actual results via metrics.
I’m obsessed with this newfound shift in focus from trying to innovate and “do it all” to focusing on moving the needle in one specific area which will yield a significant impact. Brands like Apple need to focus on what they do best versus doing it all, for example.
A call to arms for management by objective, the old Andy Grove philosophy – really works. I’ve been a director at a startup that refused to implement this vital strategy. I tried to spearhead the initiative and provided educational and informational sessions, but the millennial CEO who lacked prior experience, preferred a haphazard waterfall structure that eventually led to widespread layoffs.
What do you do to stay up to date with new marketing techniques?
Liaising with co-speakers at conferences, and being on panels has dramatically contributed to my cutting-edge knowledge of trends. I’m pumped to be speaking at Information Development World in the Silicon Valley in May. Some of the best thinkers and forerunners of digital marketing will be present.
I’m a fan of content curation sites and apps. I also scan LinkedIn headlines, Wired, CMI, Hubspot, Smashing Magazine’s newsletter, Business Insider, Engadget, Design Milk, and psych publications and blogs daily.
Can you tell us about a project you’re most proud of from your past work history?
During my tenure at California Psychics, a leading advice service ($33 mil in revenue) I spearheaded and managed the entire content marketing strategy. My efforts in migrating content from a homegrown CMS to WordPress, and redesigning the newsletter and processes / workflows, hiring new staff, freelancers and providing content pillars paid off.
I quadrupled blog traffic from 80K UVs per month to 500K UVs per week. Newsletter open rates increased from 2% to 8% for 3.5 million subscribers. Click through rates skyrocketed from 34% to 74-95% inside of one year. New customer referrals increased weekly from 50K to 400K.
My social strategy paid off – the company has a twitterscope service and a substantial presence on Facebook, which they originally eschewed. I took the taboo out of psychic advisors and made them columnists and advice specialists, linking their blogs to the front page of the site via API. Call volume spiked and the content factory I created is being maintained and upheld nearly 9 years later.
If there’s one Marketing Guru you’d recommend who and why.
Neil Patel and Kevin P. Nichols. They are disruptors and educators in the space. Their blogs, books, templates, tools and talks are better than seminars I’ve taken. They’re innovative, thoughtful and ego-less to the degree that information transparency and dissemination trumps success secrets. Patel and Nichols are entrepreneurs in the educational practitioner space, a novelty to me. Neil’s Sprout blog, KISS metrics analytics product and Forbes blog are forever changing the landscape. He covers conversion optimization, marketing and sales topics.
Nichols is an author, innovator and disruptor within the customer journey and content strategy discipline. He’s been my mentor for years and hired me to work at SapientNitro without having met or spoken to me. His faith in my experience and skillset propelled me to greater heights.
Through the MGM Grand project, I learned and then implemented digital asset management governance and strategy (for a team of 30+ stakeholders in 3 months). We migrating assets from multiple proprietary systems into CQ5 and I alone provided and presented findings and solutions.
I also furnished a 45 page recommendation and governance guide on everything from improving workflow use cases to controlled vocabularies, metadata standards, business requirements for users and permissions levels, and the like. It was my first foray into the complex world of Adobe Experience Manager, a CMS that’s here to stay and includes intense customizations for companies who require advanced templates and components to accommodate localization and personalization best practices.