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Mastering SEO and Building Business Success

In conversation with Sergio Stephano

For this episode of E-coffee with Experts, Matt Fraser interviewed Sergio Stephano, Managing Director of Adaptia, a boutique SEO marketing and branding agency, located in San Diego, California.

Sergio shares his journey in the tech industry, the lessons he learned from his first entrepreneurial venture, and his experiences in improving sales activities and forging valuable industry partnerships at SEO Inc.

Watch the episode now for some profound insights!

Just do more and act more quickly, don’t second-guess yourself so much. It’s just about going through the process and enjoying the process

Sergio Stephano
Managing Director of Adaptia

Hello everyone. Welcome to this episode of E-Coffee with Experts. I’m your host, Matt Fraser, and on today’s show, I have with me, Sergio Stephano. He is an accomplished sales and biz dev professional with a degree in business economics from the University of Santa Barbara, where he emphasized technology management.

He’s currently the managing director at Adaptia, a boutique SEO marketing and branding agency that consults with a wide range of businesses, including Silicon Valley-based startups, Fortune 500 companies, and local brick-and-mortar businesses on SEO Marketing and business development. Sergio, thank you so much for being here.

Welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me, Matt. Great to be here.

It’s fantastic. So how would your university professors describe you as a student?

I think they describe me as challenging the norms at times. Passionate at times and I’ll have the odd professor that’s definitely, seen me not engaged in class.

It was hard to keep me engaged, but when I was engaged it was good stuff.

All right. On, what made you want to pursue the route, the path that you took in school?

I think from a young age, I have been, enveloped in tech. My father worked in tech through the .com boom, and.

Worked in high technology. I’ve always had an interest in the web and things like that since we grew up during the heyday of the web. So it was fun stuff.

Absolutely. Hey, have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I would say probably by the time I hit High school. I wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Right on. What was one of the first businesses, or what was one of the first entrepreneurial ventures you had? Like the lemonade stand, a paper route packing the day when they had them. I had one. Or anything like that you can recall that you left the show.

First funny one. It’s a good one. I was, so two things. I was playing EverQuest back in the day. I built a little business selling platinum in the game and items in the game when I was young. Made a couple of grand doing that, and then forayed that into eBay and started buying and selling Mickey Manel signed baseballs.

I’d gone on eBay, buy them for a couple hundred, sell them for 250. And then, found a then I found a memorabilia store and so I cut a little bit of a bigger deal with them. I bought like 30 of them and sold those and, that was fun. So just eBay and some of the old video games.

That’s amazing. I used to buy stuff from eBay. I haven’t been active on eBay for over 10 years. I think they probably deactivated my account.

I have to look at that old account. A lot of baseballs.

Can you tell us, More about your role as VP of business development at SEO Inc? And the impact you made during your time there?

So those were tough times and good times. Tough times. Because I had a startup prior to that and raised money from friends and family. Lost it all. Kept going with that. But, went through a tough place that I think a lot of entrepreneurs go through on their first go. So ended up taking a couple of jobs and then, worked my way to SEO Inc. Which was, one of the most innovative SEO agencies out in San Diego. They’ve been around for almost two decades now. Run by Gary Grant there, and learned a lot there. And it was a really exciting journey.

It took me from the entrepreneurial route to, rolling up my sleeves and just relearning the business. Relearning kinda fundamentals of business drove me to what I do today, which is running SEO campaigns for some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies.

A lot of tree companies and a variety of clients. And ended up building up my skillset there, which was fun.

What do you wish you knew then that, you know now in regards to the first venture that failed? That wasn’t successful.

I would say it’s interesting cause when you’re when you do this when you’re an entrepreneur and you’re in the business, you think that there are a lot of people ahead of you that knew everything they were doing.

And at the end of the day, as you gain experience you start to learn that really, not everyone knows what they’re doing most of the time in fact, they don’t. Business is an iterative process of providing value, to the world in a meaningful way and capturing some value for yourself.

I think. The biggest thing I would say is just do more and act more quickly. So don’t second-guess yourself so much. It’s just about going through the process and enjoying the process.

Absolutely. Did you ever suffer from imposter syndrome?

What is imposter syndrome? Actually, I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know.

You’ve never suffered from it then. So there you go. You answered my question right there. Don’t worry about it.

How did you improve the sales activities at SEO Inc. And what strategies did you use to build valuable industry partnerships?

There was a handful. I think we did a good job of playing the conference game. We went to a lot of fun conferences, networking with people.

Interestingly enough, we did a lot of podcasting right around SEO strategies for different years. I think at the core it was really working with the marketing team internally to create the right inbound marketing strategies. So we did a really good job of making sure that we put out, strong content and, really good inbound marketing.

And then from there, it’s just about making a connection with the client, understanding what their needs are of the business. And then scoping a campaign as best we can that, that is gonna work for them. Not just in the short term, but in the long term. In the long term.

So you were thinking about an evergreen campaign then.

Evergreen and then in some cases if it’s more of a particular need where maybe they have an in-house team with some capabilities, it’s also maybe a three-month sprint. So running a three-month quarter campaign, reassessing the needs of the business, and then rescoping something. Really just focusing on results and, what’s the bottom line and goals of the campaign.

From an experience from my experience, I have butted heads I’ve worked in sales, I was in car sales, and then I was the marketing director, so I understood both parts of the job, but I also had salespeople blaming me for crappy leads when they weren’t even following up with the leads and so on and so forth.

That’s how were Glen Gary, and Glen Ross, the leads are weak. We’d always play that.

So how did you balance, it sounds like you were able to work strategically with the marketing team. How were you able to what tactic did you use or approach did you take?

I think for us in a way it was easier just because at our core we were SEO experts, so we did not do a lot of outbound digital marketing. We just did core SEO, so making sure that we’re ranking for a lot of the evergreen keywords that business owners are gonna search for when looking for SEO services, as an example, the keyword SEO services would be a targeted key.

That we would rank number one and then drive leads through that. And then be able to just scope the proper SEO campaign to clients.

And it’s also important to match keyword intent and search intent in regards to what people are searching for and coming up with terms that are at different places where people are at.

Giving them an entry point in regards to becoming a lead. Did you find any kinda lead magnets?

I think there was a couple, we do editorials, so targeted editorials with some different publications, interview style type things. So, there was a variety of items and then, Of course, the old annoying LinkedIn InMail came out, I think just a few years after that or during those times. So we leverage that. LinkedIn’s become a great tool I think, for everyone of this. I think everything put into it is valuable.

Absolutely. I think there are ways to leverage it. There are ways to use it and ways not to use it, but we won’t get into that. From a sales perspective, how did you first venture into sales? What I mean by that is that I personally started in restaurants and I learned how to sell food and then I learned how to sell cars.

And I thought it was a lot of fun. The guy that opened me up to it, he’s, his name’s Bob Brown, and he wrote a book called Bob Brown’s, a little brown Book of Restaurant Success. And he taught you how to like actually sell food. Not just be an order taker, but actually sell food. And the owners of the restaurant were blown away after I came back from that conference because they saw how high my guest check averages were.

Not only were, my guest check averages higher, but my tips were higher cause people were having a better time. I literally had tables selling a dessert to another table. Using the tactics that he taught me but that’s not what I wanna know. What was your foray into sales and your introduction to first realizing, hey, you can make money at sales? Hey, I could be good at sales, and so on and so forth.

Definitely. I think sales for me is a necessity in business, right? I think whether you are an entry-level employee or you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500, you are constantly selling. If you’re a startup founder, you’re selling, right?

You’re selling a vision both to investors and to key stakeholders. So sales for me, came out of a necessity. I like to think of myself as more of a practitioner in the sense that. Especially now I tend to focus more on strategies and implementation of marketing campaigns for clients. Sales is something that is a necessity, right? Like you need to sell something in order to run a business. It grew out of necessity for me and just understanding that at the end of the day, business at its core, and you watch Shark Tank, you’ll read a lot of the different books out there.

At its core is its sales, right?

I would say sales and marketing, but, both of them go hand in hand, like Sure.

Sales and marketing. Absolutely. They go hand in hand. Sales. I meant, to speak to sales as like a broad term of meaning, revenue as well, right?

Q one, what are sales goals?

Were there any key figures or people who influenced you in regard to learning about sales or becoming better at sales?

I think there were a few books I’ve read. I think there was a really interesting one by John Paul Getty, believe it or not, published by Playboy.

That was a good one., how to be Rich. That’s it. So that’s a good one.

By John Paul Getty?

Yep. Getty Museum out in Santa Malibu.

I’m gonna have to read that one. That’s the first I’ve ever heard of that book. I’m totally gonna read it.

It’s an old-school one. It talks about this kinda story in the trenches oil business.

I’m gonna read it. Thanks so much for sharing that. What do you think is the most critical factor for businesses when it comes to SEO marketing in today’s market?

I’d say the most critical thing is really focusing on your keyword intent, right? So keyword strategies around how you want to position yourself on the search engines.

So I think that’s number one, cause I don’t feel like a lot of businesses do a good enough job at both, determining their right keyword positioning strategy, but then revisiting that on a quarterly basis. And gut-checking again against the current ranking. So I’d put that number one, I’d put it at number two.

Just focusing on the basics, SEO at the end of the game. It’s working within Google’s algorithm and Google tells you everything within their interviews, within a lot of their panels, within a lot of the Google Webmaster tools, and blogs that they put out. I think really just implementing best practices.

If I had to focus on two things, it would be content and backlinks. That is the name of the game in the SEO sphere. Absolutely. It’s grown now and I think from a content perspective, it’s grown. So it’s really, it’s video, right? It’s leveraging YouTube.

It’s leveraging social channels as well because social signals are now becoming a bigger core part of the search. There’s an interesting shift happening right now where a lot of the younger generations are using TikTok for search, right? So at the end of the day, for me, SEO just means search engine optimization.

Over the last two decades, or let’s call it a decade and a half, that’s really meant optimizing for Google. But I feel like in this next phase, you’re looking at a lot of the platform wars that are happening, whether it is on a device level. With iOS or down to apps.

So, TikTok versus Meta versus YouTube. It’s figuring out what channels you want to target with the right user and keyword intent. And then really focusing on those, against the kind of resources that you have.

What part do you think AI is gonna play in the future for SEO?

It’s an interesting question. I think, there’s a lot to talk about it and it’s moving very fast. So we’ve, at Adaptia, we’ve been using chat GPT to come up with topic-building, right? Or building out H one, H two dom structure of category pages. So we’ve been using it as an assisted tool.

I do think it’s gonna play a big role. As an assisted tool. But I still think we’re far away from, something like chat, GPT replacing an in-house writer. We work with a lot of both in-house writers as well as contract agencies that we work with in writing that we trust and have worked with for years.

And, one of the things you’ll, you’re gonna start to see is I don’t think AI content’s gonna rank as well as human written content. I think we’re a far way away from that. We’ll see how it plays out.

Absolutely. Could you give us some examples of businesses you’ve consulted with at Adaptia and their impact and impact on their SEO, marketing, and business?

development?

Definitely. So, without naming any just talk high level, I would say. We work with a variety of businesses down from e-commerce businesses that are running supplement stores, online, e-commerce businesses that are running different types of widgets or testing kits or we’ve had a client in the UK that sells customized license plates. They got license plates that sell for millions of dollars. Some of these plates. Pretty incredible. So we’re really, optimizing for key keywords like number plates and things like that, or top supplements.

Over the last couple of years, I got very heavily involved in the kind of blockchain crypto industry back in 2015, 2016. I started. Heavily both investing and then also playing a part in the technology once Ether came out. So we’ve built a little specialty in consulting with Web 3 firms.

So everything from go-to-market strategies, SEO strategies, paid media strategies as well as, higher level consulting around tokens and things like that, that’s been super exciting.

That’s an exciting area of business and technology that I think we’re at the very forefront of.

The very beginning stages of, in other words, that I personally don’t know a lot about, but the more I talk, the more I learn, the more I learn about it, the more I think I should learn about it. Gary V is doing some pretty interesting things already in that regard with what he’s up to. And he’s a pretty smart guy.

I think it’s an opportunity for people to get ahead of things in regards to, like when the internet first started, there were opportunities galore, to be had. And I think there those same opportunities are there even in regard to AI. Some people think it’s going to put people out of business and some people are gonna lose their jobs, but if you position yourself properly, some people can make a lot of money off of it.

And doing it. What is your approach to building and managing client relationships at Adaptia and how do you ensure that your clients are satisfied with your services?

I think this is, this is something that is a daily thing, right?

I’ve come out of the agency business, I think that a lot of agencies don’t put enough time and care into really working with the client again, going back to something I mentioned before is understanding what the business needs are. What are the core business objectives at a high level?

And then setting some goals against those campaigns that we’re building. So I think number one is setting goals and expectations at the onset. And then number two to that and my team will kill me for this, but we do weekly calls with our clients. So I know there’s some agency out there that’ll do, monthly calls or calls as needed and run a report every month.

But, we really make it a point to touch base at least once a week with our clients. And for some of these clients, it’s five times a week. It’s late at night. It’s in the three hours of the morning. You never know, but cause. Sorry, what’s that?

You’re their partner essentially, right? You literally become so integrated into their business, you become their partner.

We get invested in their success, right? If I have a client that is gonna put their trust in us to do a job for them, right? And going to put us in their budget for the year or the month, we do everything we can to make sure they’re successful.

If that means running over budget on our side. We’ll do it right and we’ll do it in scope just because at the end of the day, our goal is to bring results to our clients in a meaningful way. And while in some cases as you scale, this becomes very difficult, right?

Because you grow your client base for sure. Started with a few clients, I think last quarter, we’re managing almost 35, 40 clients, right? Across a small team of us, about 15 to 20 people. So it does become challenging. I would say for anyone in the agency business if you want.

A more steady lifestyle. Get a job at a, at a big four, or get, at a bigger tech company or at an established company. Agency life to me, is where you’re gonna really roll up your sleeves. You’re gonna learn, you’re gonna work crazy hours. But you’re, at the end of the day, you’re gonna learn and you’re gonna be working on a lot of interesting stuff, I think.

One of the fun parts of the job is being able to work with many different businesses and business owners with different campaigns and settings and styles. And then also being able to see things from a different lens. We work with a lot of different clients from different walks of life and different types of businesses, and we get learnings that we might learn in one business model that translates to another business model that we might not have gotten if we were just working in that space only.

That’s pretty cool. Hey, how do you stay up to date with the latest trends in technology in the sales and marketing and digital marketing industry?

I keep up on the trends more on the tech side I’m always reading things like Y Combinator News, Y Combinator, and TechCrunch these are a couple of my go-to-tools. And I’m diving deep into kind of the Web 3 space. So, things like coin telegraph, and CoinDesk are fun for me. Also, I solo manage a small portfolio and so get a lot of my news from companies themselves, so reading some of their 8 K’s and reading some of the quarterly reports or reading some of like the Berkshire Hathaway annual notes, like things like that. So like also getting ingrained into more of learning from those that are doing as well.

For sure. Absolutely. What advice would you give to startups looking to build their brand and improve their SEO and marketing strategies?

I think the biggest thing I would give them is to build out the proper measurement systems.

I think the biggest thing, to look at is measuring conversions.

So measuring down to the conversion, measuring all of your different lead channels and, I think there’s this famous quote, it’s what gets measured or whatever done gets managed. Exactly. For me, it’s just setting up that system and that’s one of the things we do with our clients is every month we’ll do reporting.

Where we walk through the reporting with them to help them understand the reporting, help them understand the channels, what it looks like, what the conversions look like, and where are they coming from. I can’t tell you how many business owners I work with that are brilliant and teams that are brilliant, but don’t put enough weight on the actual analytics and what they’re saying, cause if you just look at the analytics, it’s gonna tell you a story and it’s gonna lead strategies that you should be implementing for the future.

Absolutely. It’s like what gets measured, and gets managed is a call by Peter Drucker there. It’s and you’re right there, there are so many agencies that not only businesses but agencies won’t name the person, but I met a person who thought that setting up analytics for her clients was simply putting the Google Analytics script on the website.

And this person has a very successful agency and it’s so amazing to me how many people ignore analytics and attribution. And it’s almost like a friend of mine has a kid who graduated from university and is working for an organization and was telling me about it.

And I was asking if they were using UTM links and implementing a UTM strategy and what they were doing to use UTMs and if the goals and event tracking all that was set up and she had no idea. How did they even know? And at the dealership, I had to implement all of that stuff and come up with KPIs.

Like I came up with KPIs for new vehicle traffic, used vehicle traffic, time on site for new and used, and the number of leads and chat sessions and SMS sessions and phone calls, and so on and so forth, because, unfortunately, I had the sales department blaming me for their lack of performance and results.

And yet I was blowing it outta the water and it was the first time I learned that a marketing department can blow something outta the water in regards to its, traffic conversions, and so on. And the sales department can totally crap the bed and waste every opportunity and not even do their jobs but it’s so amazing, like attribution to me. It’s fascinating figuring out what those things are and, setting up your campaigns properly. And do you have any thoughts on like, how you manage UTM campaigns so that everybody’s using the same parameters across the board?

I mean for us, like with UTMs we usually just cus we build them custom, right? We don’t use any tools. We just build custom UTMs in a spreadsheet and in many cases we’ll track them in a spreadsheet, right? For the ones, there’s this big switch from UA to G4 right now that, it’s kinda giving me a headache, to be honest with you. A lot of, UA was just so great. But I think as we’ve started to learn the tool, we’ve been, doing a lot. The good thing about Google is that they’ve got a lot of classes and training and videos, again, going back to what, I would recommend startups and businesses to do is really get that stuff done to the core and get that set up properly, because that’s what’s gonna allow you to onboard any agency, or any marketing team or an in-house marketer.

And also understand that at a high level, how are the campaigns, how are the strategies affecting the businesses? So that’s the number one thing I would do. Number two to that is really focusing on a strong content marketing plan and really understanding who is your audience. Who’s your user? And then building out a full content plan, which these days is a massive undertaking, right? It’s not just massive blogs, and videos, it’s social it’s a lot of things. So I’m looking forward to the day when I can just go to chat GPT and say, Hey, set me up a full content marketing calendar for q2.

And I think the funny, it’s funny cause and it scares me even, because it’s so high level, but that kind of stuff’s gonna happen and we’re gonna have to learn how to do that.

Hey, just to throw this out there, there’s a tool out there, I interviewed him, Dan McGaugh, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of him or not but he developed a tool called utm.io, which is a tool for managing UTMs and keeping UTMs. Cause at some point a spreadsheet becomes unmanageable when you get to a certain level.

And when you’re having an entire teams manage UTMs in order to have everybody on the same page, especially when you’re in different locations and areas if you’re doing international marketing where people are, maybe some people in the states, some people in the UK. So whatever the case may be, it’s an absolutely amazing tool.

I’ve been using it since the days of, I’ve been using it since the days when it came out for free what’s the word I’m looking for? Anyway, it’s at some point who knows, maybe AI will even replace a tool like this. In that regard, who knows what’s going to happen? It’s pretty damn exciting. For some people it’s exciting and for some people, it’s very scary. That’s for sure.

With that regard, how do you see the future of SEO and marketing evolving in the next five to 10 years?

I think everyone and you’ll hear it now, SEO is dead. There are some headlines coming out. And, I think it’s gonna be, honestly, we’ve been doing this for more than a decade now.

I think it’s gonna be much of business as usual. I think some of the strategies and the tactics will evolve. Especially with things like, chat GPT and some of those tools, but at the end of the day, I think SEO really goes back to primitive times.

It’s like another business I was doing when I was a kid, alluding back to the beginning of the show is just a lemonade stand. Putting your lemonade stand in the right place in the neighborhood for sure, so that you get more cars to see I mean that. That’s really SEO as well, but in the real world at the time. This is just now you, and SEO has become digital, right? So its visibility is something that any business needs. And I think search will still be the de facto way that people find things on the web.

I do see that Google’s bared is coming out with more of an AI chatbot-based search engine. And we might evolve into those. We might evolve into voice search for sure. But I think at the end of the day, then the SEO industry will need to shift to optimize for chatbot, AI search or voice search, or search on TikTok.

As much as we don’t like to have that installed on our phones, but. I think the future is bright for the industry as a whole.

Absolutely. It’s gonna be very interesting, that’s true. It’s just gonna become a part of marketing, definitely, and that thing. How do you balance your professional and personal life, and what do you do in your spare time?

I wish I had a good answer to that question. I don’t, balance is not really a word in my vocabulary right now, to be honest with you. So not great. I work a lot I definitely work a lot of Saturdays, some Sundays. I really enjoy what I do and really love the clients that we’re working with and the kind of campaigns we get to work with and the opportunities, and teams we get to be a part of.

So it doesn’t feel like work, I think if you’re gonna start an agency or, if you’re gonna start any business for that matter, it comes with some sacrifices. There’s a quote that I really like though, because this might change, hopefully very soon.

The sooner the better, but it’s entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, to live the rest of your life like most people can’t. From an entrepreneurship perspective, there are sacrifices you have to make to run a successful business.

You have many hours, right? So, easily putting in a lot of hours. I do travel a lot, go to a lot of conferences, spend a lot of time with family and friends, and do things. I’ve tried to disconnect more on the weekends, but for the most part, live, breathe, and eat SEO and work basically.

Right on. Hey, what are your future plans and goals for your career? At Adaptia and Beyond?

So for Adaptia, I think it’s just really aligning. Like just keep, continue to do great work for our clients, and continue to learn and grow as a team.

On my side, I think it’s really learning how to grow and scale a team. I think there are a lot of challenges when you’re a team of 5 or 10. They always say once you hit 25 plus, it’s just a very different game of how to manage a business. For me, I’m excited about that piece.

And then just again, delivering results to our clients and finding a way to, build, a better work-life balance overall.

Absolutely. Hey, thanks so much for being here. How can our listeners connect with you online if they choose to do

I think the best way is through Twitter.

So Twitter at Sergio, you can catch me there. Probably the easiest way, or you can visit our website, adaptiadesign.com, and shoot a contact there. It’ll go to the right places.

And you’re on LinkedIn as well, right?

I’m on LinkedIn, yep

We’ll make sure to put that information in the show notes.

That being said, I thank you so much for being here. It’s an absolute pleasure.

Awesome.

All right, Matt. Thanks so much. Appreciate the time.

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