This is a guest post by John McKenna, Marketing Program Manager at Rackspace. John loves startups and is a Space Cowboy with the Rackspace Startup Program. He enjoys telling stories through his writings…and loves the beach, the ranch, his dog Blue and most of all his three beautiful daughters.
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Chad Burgess is the Director of Marketing at SeatGeek with a specialty in SEO. SeatGeek is an online ticket search engine founded by Jack Groetzinger and Russ D’Souza at startup accelerator DreamIt Ventures in Philadelphia. The New York City-based company aggregates sports, concert and theater tickets from across the web so users see all inventories in one place. SeatGeek has a powerful data engine that uses several tools to help consumers identify the best ticket deals for each event.
Chad graduated from Georgetown University in 2007 where he studied Finance and International Business. Before joining SeatGeek, and after a brief stint in investment banking, he worked in product management at Vistaprint where he launched DIY tools to help local businesses get found via search. You can find Chad writing about his favorite teen pop stars such as Justin Bieber, One Direction and more at the SeatGeek Blog.
A blogger, search geek and customer gatherer, Chad took time to visit with the Rackspace Startup Program to enlighten us on what it takes to acquire customers in the crowded event ticket space. What follows are Chad’s thoughts on executing a customer acquisition marketing plan within a startup:
The Last Twelve Months at SeatGeek
A year has passed since Rackspace featured SeatGeek in the Rackspace Startup Program Spotlight series and there have been quite a few changes at SeatGeek. We’ve continued to improve our deal discovery via Deal Score, launched a Spotify app and released band/team tracking integrated with Facebook, Last.fm and Spotify. We have improved across other varied focus areas, including a native iPhone app in active development as of this writing.
Although product continues to be core strength thanks to a top-notch development team, this past year has been a tremendous period of marketing maturation at SeatGeek. That’s not to say we weren’t effectively acquiring customers until this year, because we were. We also see public relations and business development as major growth channels, and now with more resources, more money and a stronger grasp of our core channels, we can focus more time to new channels. Some of those channels are retargeting, social and a more cohesive approach to inbound marketing.
SeatGeek Customer Acquisition
I joined SeatGeek before the summer of 2010. Our head of Business Development, Nihar Singhal, and I joined around the same time and we were the first of the non-technical minority to enter the ranks of SeatGeek. Point being that there was no true marketing in place – just generalities with regards to channel prioritization.
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) was just as much of a focus for us out of the gate as social media, with the combined blog writing, and related managing of content interns, being a close second. But none of these three focus areas was even a major source of traffic that first year (partnerships were our first successful channel). This will become relevant shortly when you see how much of this original plan was scrapped and where we actually ended up having success with customer acquisition.
SeatGeek’s Marketing Challenges And Mistakes…And Their Pivots
For continuity purposes I will address the challenges we faced specifically in context of the list above.
Managing Social Media: We set up siloed accounts for various event types (SeatGeekNBA, SeatGeekNFL, etc.) which stretched our already light resources into a social channel for a product that at the time had no social features. Pivot: We switched to focusing on just our core account many months later – we should have done this earlier.
Managing Social Media Interns Over the Summer: We had our interns spending too much time trying to haphazardly build a social media presence with little success. Pivot: Interns are great resources to use for day-to-day social media (sharing of blog posts, relevant pages, other interesting content, basic replies, etc.), but not as much for building a presence from the ground up – their contributions were much better in terms of SEO content and data-driven public relations and content marketing.
Building Out SeatGeek’s SEM: We have had a quite a few challenges on SEM and paid marketing more broadly because we compete in these marketing channels against the same companies that we aggregate for our ticket search-engine, making the economics challenging. Pivot: We are more actively involved in paid marketing of late but no longer operate under the assumption that even the most proven channels will be some sort of proverbial “plug-and-play” situation or that all main channels could work for us if given proper testing and optimization – certain paid marketing channels will just never work for some business models.
Improving SeatGeek’s SEO: This has been a core growth channel for us but we did have challenges; the long-game of SEO, competing against 10-plus-year-old domain names and industry leaders, and continually investing in a channel whose payoff was just a hypothetical carrot dangling one to two years in the future. Pivot: We got this one right, but it is easy to mess up and overpay “SEO gurus” and consultants for little in return – most people give up on SEO because SEM (or another paid channel) shows immediate returns and SEO shows zero immediate returns. Looking back at the tremendous success we have had with organic search, the following key factors come to mind; top-down buy-in for SEO (and thus frictionless dev resources), commitment to interns and constant blogging (with freelancer help we do more than five posts per day right now, which is a lot for a 20-person company), having me in-house focusing on organic and having a top-notch data-driven public relations strategy that yielded us constant mentions and links.
Composing TicketBeat Reports: We spent a lot of time compiling and editing these reports, and they got little traction. Pivot: We should have spent less time focusing on the minutiae of bullet-point phraseology and graph styles, and more time just putting out more content and pitching more data points – also, I like hosting content on our blog rather than using an off-domain service (though a combination of both is OK).
Leveraging Social Media Connections: This is hard and laborious, but we got it right when we brought PR in-house and hired someone better suited to this type of pitching – we also wasted a lot of time trying to get bloggers to add a ticketing widget to their site which turned out to be ROI-negative looking at time-spent versus traffic-sent. Pivot: At the beginning we went after a lot of smaller blogs, but have since focused almost exclusively on major publications and feature stories.
Writing Several Blog Posts/Week: This is another one we got right, but we made mistakes earlier on as we figured out the types of content that were the best use of our time – our blogging strategy as it is today wasn’t fully formed until six months after we first started blogging. Pivot: Fortunately when it comes to blogging, as long as one is doing it, you are setting the baseline for it to be effective in the future even if one is doing it wrong and it’s ineffective in the present.
Helping Out with Other Tasks: Not so much a challenge, but if you enter a small startup as a non-technical person be prepared to do some amount of low-level work that is below your self-perceived skill level. Pivot: The randomness of tasks early on at a startup can actually be pretty fun and if it succeeds you’ll end up hiring people to take away the tasks that aren’t part of your core role at the company.
I went line-by-line to show how we had issues with almost everything and really ended up sticking with only a few of the main marketing tasks we had originally planned. You’ve likely inferred it, but the takeaway is that even in marketing you have to be agile.
Lessons Learned From Others at SeatGeek
“I think the interplay between SEO and bus dev is interesting as it relates to customer acquisition. We’ve been able to accept negative EV BD deals simply because of the expected SEO value. This BD/SEO relationship has an amplifying effect–when we were just getting started, the SEO amplification from BD deals was trivial in its absolute impact. But as our overall domain value has increased, the amplification makes it possible to justify BD deals for the sake of SEO, which further increases the value of future BD deals and makes it possible for us to do even more negative EV BD deals, etc.”
– Jack Groetzinger, Co-founder
“Business development has been a key driver in acquiring highly qualified users in an economic and strategic manner via partnerships with sites such as Yahoo! Sports, Yahoo! Music, and AOL Music.”
– Nihar Singhal, Vice President of Business Development
“We tend to use the majority of our freelancers for briefer posts and updates. For example, we have a core group of writers who submit weekly updates on sports teams. This system ensures a continual flow of fresh copy on those topics responsible for driving a significant amount of traffic to the site. We have fewer freelancers writing on our main blog, which focuses more heavily on music, but the ones who do post are our best, and, accordingly, are offered more assignments (some on a daily basis) and are paid more per submission. The benefit of main-blog freelancers is twofold: they allow us to a) delegate tasks we’d rather not work on, but know need to get done, and b) focus our time and energy on more out-of-the-box, creative posts and initiatives. We’re always experimenting with SEO tactics, and having a reliable freelancer base affords us both the freedom to experiment and the peace of mind that our standard bread-and-butter work is still being accomplished.”
– Anna Storm, Content Writer
“From a content-marketing perspective, we’ve found a fantastic way to acquire users through the effective use of our company data to drive media coverage. We analyze and share ticket-price trend information with journalists, who then disseminate that info to sports and concert fans. It’s a win-win-win situation as journalists receive unique newsworthy data, fans learn how much it will cost to see their favorite teams or bands in person, and SeatGeek has a golden opportunity to get our name out in front of our core user base.”
– Will Flaherty, Director of Communications
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The Rackspace Startup Program thanks our favorite SearchGeek, Chad Burgess, for taking the time out of his busy schedule to enlighten us on executing a customer acquisition marketing plan within a startup and sharing lessons learned from others at SeatGeek. Head on over to Rackspace Cloud for more insight on hosting your startup on the platform today.