One on One: Rounding the Bases with Jeff Ferguson

This interview with Fang Digital CEO Jeff Ferguson is the eighth in an ongoing series. I will continue to search for the Holy Grail of online business success by tapping into where the industry’s elite have been, what makes them tick and how they got to where they are today.

I’ve been looking forward to this interview ever since the first day of the Marketing Conference last week in New York. Jeff led the most memorable session for me, combining my two loves: baseball stats and Facebook marketing. It was an easy starting point for a blog post earlier in the week about the Moneyball of Facebook Marketing.

Once I found out that Jeff was also a Packers fan, it was a no-brainer. I must interview this genius.
Jeff Ferguson
So who is Jeff? He’s the CEO and Lead Consultant of Fang Digital Marketing, a strategic consulting agency that specializes in internet marketing, including search engine marketing, display, social, and affiliate programs. With over 17 years of online marketing experience, Jeff has led the online marketing efforts for companies such as Hilton Hotels, Kimberly-Clark and Napster.

Recently honored as one of PPC Hero’s “Top 25 Most Influential PPC Experts,” Jeff is no stranger to the industry speaking circuits throughout the US, Europe, and Asia. He’s a regular presenter at Ad:tech, AllFacebook Expo, Search Marketing Expo (SMX) and Digital Hollywood, among others.

Make sure to follow Jeff on Twitter (@fangdigital and @countxero) and like Fang Digital on Facebook.

Jon: Tell me about Fang Digital. What services do you offer and what makes your company unique?

Jeff: Fang Digital is a relatively new agency, but everyone involved is certainly not new to the business. I’ve been in internet marketing on the client side since 1995 for companies like Hilton, Kimberly-Clark, and Napster. My team is made up of ex-Googlers, ex-Yahoos, plus my head of media is a long time agency VP that worked on major brands for years before we partnered up. The brain trust is amazing.

We are a full-service internet advertising agency and have done amazing things for our clients in the areas of social media, paid search, SEO, display, and more, but we’re mostly known for our work in search marketing.

Where we’re really unique is that, because I come from a client side background, I’ve really tried to design our interaction with our clients based on how I liked to be treated back then. So, we avoid a lot of “black box” practices where we don’t tell the clients anything about what’s going on with their campaigns, how they’re built, and so on.

Plus, coming from the client side gave me unique insight into the type of questions that the c-level staff usually asks, so we do our best to make sure our clients are on the right path for their success metrics and don’t get caught up in any of the goofy metrics that can be used as a smoke screen by a lot of agencies. No reporting back on the number of likes, or SEO ranking reports, etc.; just hard numbers on increases in sales (or whatever) from the channels that we optimize or manage.

Jon: Ahhhh… numbers and metrics. My favorite topic. We’ll get to more of that in a second.

Given the stage my business is in, I’m always curious about the stories behind the companies. What inspired you to start Fang Digital, and can you provide any background on the growth you’ve seen during the past two years?

Jeff: At the end of 2010, I had a lot of hard decisions to make about where things were going with my life and career. I had just wrapped up with my last corporate gig and was getting tired of how a lot of places were making decisions about how to run their companies, in good times and bad.

So, I decided I’d try consulting again, which I had tried before, but not to this extent. After landing a few clients that seemed to want more management type services after the consulting was done, I could tell there was still plenty of room in the business for another agency.

The first year (last year) was terrifying, even with new clients coming in, because I was not only trying to grow this business, but was also planning my wedding, which happened last October. Right before the wedding, my anchor client pulled up stakes completely and left me scrambling for business in Q4, which is hard anyway, but extra tough when you’re desperate. Fortunately, by January a lot of the work I did in Q4 paid off in spades, then one just seemed to lead to another. It’s been a really fun year.

Jon: I completely get that “terrifying” feeling — and I’m sure most of my readers do, too. I’ve found, though, that desperation often leads to success since that’s when you’re most likely to test your limits and take risks.

You mentioned Napster before. You were the Senior Director of Online Marketing for them. That’s “Old School” and we’re only talking four years ago. I remember stealing my first song like it was yesterday. What are some lessons learned from your Napster days that stick out in your mind?

Jeff: Napster was really fun. I was there the three years that led up to them getting bought by Best Buy and I felt like I learned a ton about my job, all while having music around me constantly. That was the first place I’d worked for that was using an agile development process, which kicked in during the last year I was there thanks to some fresh blood at the c-level of the company.

I had always been a very metrics driven marketer since the get go, especially after working with Experian the year before I started with Napster, but Napster was the first I’d worked at that saw a real shift in the way it understood its metrics while I was there.

In the beginning, their goals for new trials of the service seemed really arbitrary and based on a model that had some real odd metrics at their core; however, after some things changed internally, they got really focused on lifetime value, and we were able to take it even deeper and look at that on a channel by channel basis, which allowed you a much better control over the various campaigns.

That said, there were still plenty of lessons of the “what not to do” category, but most of those could be summed up with, make sure you’re actually including the experts in your company in all of your decision making and really pay attention when they tell you a bad deal is a bad deal.

Jon: That sounds like an amazing experience. It’s one of those cards you can always whip out to spice up a conversation (“I worked at Napster!”). Kind of like how I relentlessly carry on about my NBA days.

Speaking of sports, Time to dive into Moneyball. I read that you weren’t a real baseball stats guy until you saw the movie and read the book. But you’re a business stats guy. Tell me about your transformation.

Jeff: (laughs) First, I need to admit right out of the gate that my wife is a much bigger sports fan than I am. Where most of my love of sports was on a purely social level (which means that I loved hanging out with folks to watch the games, either in person or at sports bars or whatever), my wife is a hard-core, dyed in the wool sports geek who has a memory for players, rules, stats, and everything else that I just never seemed to have the capacity for in the past.

That is, until I saw the movie Moneyball and ended up reading the book shortly thereafter. I of course knew there were a lot of stats around baseball, but a lot of them just never really interested me. However, after learning about Moneyball and how the Oakland A’s used Bill James’ techniques to basically optimize their season like it was a paid search campaign, baseball stats really started to speak to me. Now, my wife and I have plenty of new things to discuss during games, especially baseball.

For instance, when the Red Sox picked up Mike Napoli recently for almost $40 million over 3 years, the discussion wasn’t about what one would consider an outrageous salary, but that it made sense because the guy was really great at getting on base and could do great things as an “elder statesman” within that organization. I feel like we’ve really grown as a couple… (laughs)

Jon: Your wife sounds awesome. Love for stats, memory of players… Why am I talking to you again? I kid!

As you know, I love this topic. I put you on the spot at the Marketing Conference, and asked you what the Facebook marketing equivalent is of the “walk” — the baseball stat that largely goes unnoticed but is undervalued. At the time, you said it was the Share. Still feel that way? Explain.

Jeff: Absolutely. The share in social media is definitely the equivalent of the walk, or base on balls as the Sabermetrics crowd calls it in their equations, which I totally agree doesn’t get enough love by a lot of folks who don’t look at the real mechanics behind scoring in baseball. My thinking was that, it’s not as important as a hit (a click through) or a run (a conversion), but it’s still part of the overall on-base plus slugging calculation (OPS).

That was really my larger point with that discussion at the AllFacebook Conference, that we get caught up in metrics like “likes” or “followers,” which I think are the equivalent of tracking “errors” in baseball. But what we really need to be working on is a single number based on an equation like OPS, which would look at things like likes, shares, and a variety of other metrics to boil down all the individual metrics into a number that really tells us what’s going on in a campaign.

Most of the time, if I can get clients or people who see me speak to at the very least remember to focus on their core metrics (like sales or ROI) in their social media campaigns, I consider it a win. But there is still work to be done on this front.

Jon: That — comparing hits to click throughs, runs to conversions and walks to shares — makes a whole lot of sense. While I was focusing on “underrated” stats, you’re absolutely correct in your comparison. Like with the walk, it doesn’t directly result in a run or conversion, but the more shares/walks you get, your odds go up exponentially.

The Oakland A’s in the Moneyball example, of course, understand this. I compare the A’s to the small business looking to compete with the bigger guys while on a budget. What are the keys to smart marketing management Oakland A’s – style?

Jeff: Focusing on the right success metrics. That may seem like an oddly simple answer, but I still see plenty of companies out there that sell things, online no less, but come to me with odd success metrics like increasing page views, or likes, or whatever, when they should be focused on sales, ROI, ROAS, etc. A smaller company could eat the lunch of a larger company that isn’t getting this simple thing right.

Jon: So page views and likes are largely overrated or worthless (I guess I need to stop talking about my page views). What stats — Facebook and otherwise — need to be trashed or at least given far less emphasis? Why?

Jeff: I think it really depends on the business you’re in. But for the most part, a lot of the lower metrics that are usually rolled into other equations need to be ignored, except when they’re actually part of that larger equation.

For instance, page views makes a lot of sense to track if you’re running a site that makes its money from advertising, but usually it’s not very useful unless it’s baked into other equations to show how visitors are iteracting with your site. Likes and followers are fun to watch grow, but using them as the basis of the success of your social media campaign is akin to basing your grades in school on how popular you are on the playground.

You may buy things based on impressions or clicks or whatever, but they were never supposed to be the success metric in and of themselves.

Jon: AH HAH! So tracking page views is okay after all (for me at least)! That’s a relief…

Any visions for the future of marketing analytics? There are some great tools out there, but it seems like the general public is largely under equipped and ill informed as a result. How do you see this changing, and what type of tool or industry leader do you want to see emerge?

Jeff: Oddly, I think we really need to take a step back before moving forward, and remember first that the word “marketing” is in the phrase “marketing analytics” and “internet marketing” or “search marketing” or whatever marketing for a reason. We have so much technology at our disposal and so many new things that we CAN track that we end up forgetting the things we SHOULD track.

I think we have enough tools at our disposal now to do our job and the idea of another new metric makes me shiver. Earlier this year, someone from Facebook was talking about how we needed a new metric to show the reach that Facebook provides and I about lost it because we’ve already got that covered 5 times over.

Instead, we need to learn how to combine the metrics we already have into a single number that tells us, “hey, this is working” and allows us to compare things better against other campaigns.

Jon: That makes sense. So like OPS wasn’t actually a new stat but a combination of stats to tell a more accurate story. I’m following you. We’re looking for some genius to discover the OPS of marketing and change everything.

The million dollar question right now: What changes should we anticipate in digital marketing in 2013? What big changes are you expecting or hoping for?

Jeff: I’m really hoping that 2013 is a year for a lot of newfound maturity in digital marketing. SEO felt a big shudder this year when Google was able to update its algorithm to catch people doing things they were never supposed to be doing anyway, but most of the reactions from the community sounded like people who get popped for speeding, but blame the cop.

Paid search’s biggest controversy seems to be that Google started charging for its product listing ads and the community freaked out with a damning, “How dare you try and make money as a business!” Social media is the true toddler of the business, so you expect a little more whining than usual, but with so many older siblings, you would think they would be a little more prepared for all the rapid changes.

Basically, we need to grow up a lot and start acting like the professional service people that we need to be and stop acting like we’re a band of merry hackers. This is a fun business, but it’s still a business, and we need to treat it as such.

Jon: I couldn’t agree with you more, Jeff. One of my biggest annoyances during the past year centered around all of the incessant whining marketers make about Facebook. Childish indeed.

Okay, so let’s close this strong. What’s in the future for Jeff Ferguson and Fang Digital? What should we expect from you in 2013?

Jeff: Growth! We’ve actually nailed down a few new clients even in this last month of the year and will start working on them immediately so they’re ready for January. Plus, just like with the beginning of this year, I’m hoping a lot of the work I did in Q4 pays off in Q1 of 2013. I’m booked at three different shows already for 2013, which I really love doing, and it’s not too bad for business either. (laughs)

Thanks so much, Jeff! Definitely an interview for the record books.

Don’t forget to follow Jeff on Twitter (@fangdigital and @countxero) and like Fang Digital on Facebook!