In the digital marketing world, search engine optimized lead generation is a bit like the Wild West: unsettled, filled with promise and constantly changing. Within the relatively new realm of SEO, marketers are still learning which lead generation techniques work and which don’t. It’s a brave new world that doesn’t really know what it is yet.
If lead generation is the Wild West, lead generation specialist Sean Ruffolo is Clint Eastwood: a hired gun who works alone, keeps it simple and works according to his own rules.
Ruffolo builds and optimizes websites for specific keywords, gets organic leads and then passes them off to his clients, who are mostly general contractors and physicians. Rather than point to someone else’s content, he creates his own. In doing so, he defies the popular assumption that businesses are better off generating their own organic leads. He also dares to be old-fashioned; he would rather actually talk to clients than Skype with them, and he not only still uses snail mail for client outreach, he prefers it.
Ruffolo’s model might be unusual in an ultra-digital, agency-oriented market, but it seems to be working; he has a growing list of clients and a reputation as one of the most innovative (in an old-fashioned way) freelance lead generators in the industry.
I talked with Ruffolo about being a hired gun in an agency town, outreaching without advertising, and owning your traffic.
How did you get started in marketing?
I got my start in Internet marketing when I got picked up by Poseidon Studios, a web design company in North Carolina. One day I updated my status on Facebook, and a friend of mine who works in Internet marketing messaged me and said that he liked the way my status was written, and then asked me to come on board his web studio and write content for clients’ websites. At that time the studio was just starting to discover Internet marketing and search engine optimization, so I just dove right in and learned everything I could, as fast as I could.
Where would you say you are now in your career?
I still do work with that studio, some joint ventures with the lead developer. I’m self-employed now, but I’m not established as an LLC; I’m not corporate or anything like that yet.
What is your niche? Who are your clients?
My clients right now are remodeling, home construction, flooring – general contractors are my niche. I’m trying to break into plastic surgery. I have a website I’m currently working on that ranks different plastic surgery terms in the Portland, Oregon area. It’s just “Portland, Oregon plus keyword”.
What’s your process for optimizing websites?
I work in a per-lead situation, where I build my own website and rank it. I own the traffic; if I have a lead generation site and I’m just getting paid per referral, I’m able to manage and control the traffic completely. There’s a lot of on-page stuff that’s pretty basic. You’re trying to include a keyword and synonyms as much as you can without Google recognizing that you’re trying to do search engine optimization, and from there it’s just building a better backlink profile than your competition.
What separates you from the pack as a marketing professional in Portland?
What separates me is that I don’t accept [just] anyone as a client. If someone is interested in doing business with me, I very rarely say yes. Instead, I build a product that I know someone in an industry will need and want and be satisfied with.
So, the product comes before the client?
Yeah. That’s one downfall to the way I do search engine optimization; I do the work a couple of months before I get paid, versus someone paying me by the month to rank their website.
What are the advantages of that approach versus working with clients to find their own leads?
I’m able to work with multiple clients, in the same niche, in the same city, with one website that I build. There’s no way that any surgeon in Portland is going to need 200 plastic surgery leads per month. I’m able to take all those leads that I make and work with five different surgeons. If you do the traditional SEO route, you’re ranking terms for one client’s website and you can’t work with anyone else in town because it creates a conflict of interest.
What are some of the challenges with that model?
SEO is an absolute bear to work with; just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, another update comes out and you have to adapt your strategy. What I do isn’t white hat SEO. I own all the content linking to my websites. Managing a private blog network is a big challenge.
How do you find and retain clients?
It’s all outreach on my part. I don’t have a card or advertise my services. I build a product. I build a website and rank it, and then reach out to businesses and say I have people contacting me trying to get a rhinoplasty or get their kitchen remodeled, whatever the niche is, and they say, “I could really use the leads.” I get paid on a per-referral basis. Right now, it’s all per lead; I don’t do any monthly fees or anything like that yet.
How many clients do you have?
Right now, just four, but I’m hoping that, with my new website with plastic surgery leads, I can move it up to seven or eight. It’s a lot of focusing on smaller clients and getting them to spend more money on you.
How do you work with clients? Is it hands-on, or do you both just do your own thing?
The client relationship starts with me reaching out to them and saying that I have people interesting in their products. From there, it’s about working with them, figuring out what they need, if they need a higher volume of leads, and whether their leads are converting well. That’s why I like to get paid on a per lead basis rather than a per purchase basis. I get paid a lower amount for, say, a rhinoplasty lead, and I leave the selling up to them.
What’s your average work day like?
I spend a lot of time looking for expired domains, ones that people have stopped paying for. I can come in and register that domain, but all the links are still pointing to it. Then I have a strong website that I can set up as a blog, and point to that. I try to find one or two a day. From there, I find and reach out to clients, manage the lead generation sites themselves, and do a lot of conversion rate optimization. A lot of the websites I have are very low traffic, so I value that traffic very highly, and I do everything I can to make sure people are filling out a form or calling a phone number every time they land on my site.
How would you define your digital marketing presence?
I don’t employ any social networking. I typically use traditional mail for outreach to clients. I’ve found that to be much more effective than email; you can customize everything about it, you can print out reports about search traffic in clients’ cities, and send them everything they’ve done for past clients and what you can do for them. It has a much stronger impact.
What’s your method of running a blog network?
When I first started out I was managing it all on my own. You’re building multiple websites, and you have to trick Google into thinking they’re real blogs. You have to put them on different hosting, you have to register different companies, and you have to fake all the contact information. From there, you link it to your lead generation website. Now I have two employees in the Philippines who manage it for me; that’s a good use of outsourcing.
What tools do you use to generate keywords?
Google searches and my own intuition. For plastic surgery, for example, I try to figure out what people type into Google when they’re looking for a plastic surgeon. It’s pretty obvious; people type in “rhinoplasty surgeon” or “tummy tuck surgeon” or “mommy makeover surgeon”. Those are the keywords I’m ranking for now.
What for you is the best way to find long-tail keywords?
Long Tail Pro is really good, if you’re looking for a specific tool. Aside from that, Google searches and the Google keyword tool to see search volume, which I’ve found is actually really inaccurate.
You do a search and find that only 10 people are searching for it a month. So, you rank it as number nine, which is barely the first page of a Google search, and you have 10 people contacting you a day. There’s obviously way more people searching for it per month.
Do you see yourself continuing as a freelancer or joining an agency?
I’m interested in joining a startup in the search engine optimization niche, or Internet marketing in general. I miss working with bigger clients and more traditional projects. I definitely want to join a company I feel like I’m a part of, and can grow with.