For this week’s Humans of Marketing profile, Priyal Mahuvakar, Head of North America – SEO at StubHub, spoke to us about her learning philosophy — test and learn, test and learn— the importance of constant team communication, and the role of routine in her life. She also told us how her Instagram habit informs her marketing strategies, and reminded us that everyone’s a fan of something.
Christine: I would love to get started at the beginning because that is a very good place to start. How did you get started working in marketing, and how did your career path proceed to the position you’re in right now?
Priyal: I knew growing up that I wasn’t cut out for a typical 9 to 5 job where I would have to do the same thing day in and day out. So, I chose to major in advertising and communications. I knew I wanted to do something creative, and be in a more dynamic space where I could touch a lot of different things.
When I was in college, digital was growing at a really fast pace, and I wanted to get into it. This great opportunity came up with Coupons.com in affiliate marketing at the time, so that’s where I started.
I got to learn some great affiliate marketing strategies and techniques, but it also exposed me to other areas because I was curious and I would just go and talk to people. For some reason, the search people were the ones who interested me the most, so I would ask the paid search team or the organic team if I could help with projects. I ended up doing a lot of keyword research, and realized — this is interesting, I like it, but I don’t know enough about it.
I went into an agency because I felt like I could really get my hands dirty and learn the different facets of search. I spent about three years there. When you’re with an agency, you work with so many different clients and various types of websites, and eventually I felt like I was ready to own a strategy end to end. I started looking for an in-house position, and StubHub happened.
Since then it’s been a rollercoaster ride at StubHub — figuring out what SEO means here, and then creating awareness around it. That’s been my journey. I’ve had jobs which allowed me to explore more than what I was doing in my day-to-day and that allowed me to learn more about what I like and don’t like.
Christine: I love that story so much. That curiosity is something I’ve noticed in a lot of marketers we’ve spoken to. Talk to me about what inspires you, what gets you out of bed and excited to do what you’re doing today?
Priyal: Inspiration comes in so many different forms, but right now I feel like we’re at a great point in time where there’s a ton of opportunity in front of us. I come across many brands that are doing these amazing things with their product, their content, and their marketing. They’re getting more creative with shorter attention spans, with finding their audience, and with getting them hooked.
That opportunity is exciting. I’m a huge Instagrammer, and I click on every random brand that comes across my feed, so I just keep getting exposed to more of it, and I find that super inspirational. It’s a cycle where you’re watching, and you’re absorbing, and you’re looking at the interaction of other brands and their audiences, and it just feeds into that loop — it helps you formulate how you want to cater your messages, how you want to talk about your content. Developing an understanding of the role that content plays is critical in SEO.
Every company runs SEO a different way, so what’s exciting to me is just to be able to own our strategy and say, “Okay, this is what SEO means for StubHub, and this is how we do it.”
Christine: That is exciting. You’re always looking for ways to learn, rather than just passively scrolling.
Priyal: A few years ago, I wouldn’t have bought anything off of social media. But the amount I have shopped through Instagram, and bought things from brands that only have an online presence — I’m surprised by that myself. They’re using content as their main vehicle.
Christine: What are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?
Priyal: I think this is becoming the theme of our conversation today, but I am really excited about content right now. We launched a digital magazine earlier this year. Historically, we hadn’t done a lot with content marketing, and I felt like there was an opportunity, given that we’re in such a fun space. Live events, concerts, music, sports, theater — there’s just so much to talk about.
We look at search data every day, see the variety of things that people are looking for. There was an opportunity to do more editorial content, not just for SEO, but to retain the users that we work so hard to acquire through all these different channels. How do we keep them engaged? How do we keep them coming back? And how do we make them loyal to StubHub? Its a super competitive space.
By “content,” I’m not just referring to the magazine, or the editorial side of things. I’m thinking: can we do more with video? With podcasts? Is there an opportunity that can help us create an ecosystem around everything that we do? That’s something I’m very excited about. I’ve been working on it this year, and I intend to grow it next year.
Christine: I like the way you talk about it as an ecosystem, because there’s so much outside of what you can control, right? There are artists on social media, there are so many different ways that engagement can happen. And you’re thinking about the fact that you spent effort, time, and money to get somebody in the door, and you want to be able to continue that relationship.
Priyal: Yes. There’s a wide spectrum of audiences that are sensitive to different things. There could be price-sensitive audiences that are just looking for the best deal out there, versus audiences that value brand propositions, or customer service. We have to figure out how to cater to all of these different audiences, and effectively engage them.
Christine: How does your team work with other teams to get them that customer understanding, that data, that intelligence?
Priyal: SEO sits on the performance marketing team, and we have very good relationships with our partners in integrated marketing strategy, PR, comms, and organic social. We’re constantly in communication; we’re a very chatty culture. We determine where the opportunities are and then all the channel owners come together to figure out where we want to invest and where we can do more.
There is a ton of knowledge sharing, including market and consumer insights. Multiple inputs come together to formulate a great strategy around a specific campaign.
Christine: When you have a win — you’ve created a campaign, you’ve executed on something, you’ve built out a piece of content that’s doing well — what is it like to promote and share that internally?
Priyal: Slack and email are the most commonly used when it comes to sharing and we want to reach as many people within the organization as we can. We also have weekly marketing meetings, where we talk about the previous week and any wins, any new innovations, and anything we’re testing. So that sharing happens at a broader level — it’s the majority of the marketing team, including our leaders.
It’s a very fun, engaging event and we get to talk to people who we wouldn’t normally interact with, because our paths wouldn’t cross otherwise.
Having so many people willing to engage and endorse what we’re doing is encouraging.
Christine: What makes StubHub a special place to work?
Priyal: It’s such a fun brand, being in this space of live events. There are artists who are on your playlist, or sports teams that you’re a fan of, and working on that is exciting in itself, but for me, StubHub is the people. We have the smartest, most talented and collaborative team here. Its a mix of diverse backgrounds, and there’s never a shortage of great ideas.
And there’s this great mentality, because everybody’s a fan of something. So we’re automatically also part of the audience that we’re targeting.
Christine: What’s the thing you’re most proud of having worked on?
Priyal: There are a lot of little things that I feel proud of. I consider all of those little projects great wins. SEO is a complex beast and needs context to get it right, and most companies struggle with it: how does it make sense, where does it fit, does it need investment?
Over the past three and a half years at StubHub, we’ve made SEO a top initiative for the company. We’ve got buy-in and support from leaders across the board who get it now, and that’s something that I feel super proud of. There’s so much interest in doing more and growing the channel. That’s not how it was when I started. It was just another channel that was bringing in traffic, but no one really had an understanding of what to do with it.
We’ve worked really hard over the last few years to get to this point. I have friends in my network who work at other companies doing SEO, and I hear about the struggle, and I know it’s still hard for many companies to get their heads around it. So that’s one of the big achievements that I think I’ll always be proud of.
Christine: What’s one thing you’re doing to grow this year? What’s a new skill or a new thing you’re trying?
Priyal: I’m trying to improve my SQL writing skills. Data is powerful, and I love to find stories that I can tell through data. Part of getting buy-in for SEO has been through data and telling the right story. More and more companies expect marketers to be data savvy today and I think its an important skill set to have.
I always thought I was okay at SQL, but now that I’m using it, I’m finding that I have scope to improve. It’ll help me do much more and bring efficiency to the way we operate.
Christine: When we talk about evangelizing SEO, that storytelling is the how.
It’s how you get to a place where people want to listen because they understand how the data might impact them and what they’re working on. If somebody was just getting started in marketing, what advice would you give them?
Priyal: There’s nothing more powerful than being a sponge and absorbing what’s out there, learning everything that you can learn about a customer, the market or your industry. We’re in an age where we have access to so much content through many different channels. If you remain curious, you learn constantly and that can help your career in the long term. If you become the customer and receive all that information, that can be a huge lever too. It just goes back into that loop of test and learn, learn and apply.
Christine: How do you stay engaged and inspired? And how do you make sure, when things aren’t as easy, your team continues to be engaged and thinking about the questions you want to think about?
Priyal: It goes back to the data. If something didn’t work, trying to figure out why. What is the expectation that we set, versus what ended up happening? Why did we miss, and why didn’t it work out? Having a good understanding of that helps put into context what we need to do next and how we need to move forward.
We’ll go back to the drawing board — what can we do differently? That testing mentality has to be an ingrained part of the culture, and part of your thinking if you want to grow. We shouldn’t be afraid of failing. With SEO there is no 100 percent guarantee that something is going to work.
Christine: Outside of your immediate team, are there teams that you work with to help tell the story of the brand?
Priyal: Absolutely. Our product team would be one of the key stakeholders — it’s those product pages that we’re trying to drive traffic to with SEO. Sometimes we make changes, or request a different feature, and that’s when the data really helps. We’re able to take it to our product team and say, “This is what we think is going on with search. This is why we’re ranking for something or not, and this is why we want to make some changes.” The product is the ultimate vehicle to reach our audience.
We also work closely with our integrated market strategy team. They’re responsible for different verticals that we work in, like sports, concerts and theater. We take the insights and share it with them and say, “Hey guys, look, this is how our ranking is. Here’s what we’ve done this month, and we feel like this is an opportunity.” That also puts into context the many different ways that they can leverage SEO. Them having an understanding of what we’re doing helps them become a strong ally for us and helps make our case stronger.
Christine: What do you read, watch, or listen to, to get new ideas? How do you keep up with trends?
Priyal: I do follow some websites and blogs in the search space, as well as sites like Search Engine News or Search Engine Land, to get a sense of any new updates or algorithm changes. It’s a good way to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening within search.
I also learn a lot by following brands and exposing myself to other content out there, especially on LinkedIn.
Christine: Are there any particular thought leaders you would recommend?
Priyal: I don’t really subscribe to any specific thought leaders as such. I’m very open to different points of views on topics that I’m interested in and there are so many writers covering search marketing today. Early on in my career, I followed Rand Fishkin in his journey through Moz – he was probably one of the few voices out there at the time. But other than that, I’m pretty open to new folks, and new ways of thinking. As long as it’s an interesting topic, I’ll usually give it a read.
Christine: Let’s pivot to talking about outside of work. What do you do outside of work that expands what you think about and makes you a better marketer?
Priyal: My husband and I are music fans, so we’ll try to catch a concert every couple of months, and that ties back to what I do at StubHub. Other than that, I play tennis every chance I get. That’s my time to just reset. I have been wanting to do something more, but haven’t had the time. I’m really just trying to balance life right now.
Christine: What’s the last concert that you went to?
Priyal: We went to the Game of Thrones concert series with the original composer and his team. It was by far one of the most brilliant concerts I have attended. I’m a huge Game of Thrones fan and it was a treat to watch it played live.
Christine: All of the marketers we talk to are listening to music all the time to get pumped up or to keep focused. What’s the one song on repeat for you right now?
Priyal: The song I’m listening to the most this week is “Sunset Lover” by Petit Biscuit. When I’m in the zone, I just find tunes that I listen to on loop. That’s also where the Game of Thrones and other soundtracks come into play.
Christine: Tell me about a day in your life. Walk me through it. You wake up in the morning, and…what happens?
Priyal: I need a routine in my day to day, so I’m pretty disciplined that way. I wake up, and drive through crazy traffic to get to work every morning. In the first 15-20 minutes, I make a mental map of what the day’s going to be like.
Of course, it can shift drastically sometimes, but it still helps me to recenter every morning and focus on what I need to do. And then as the day goes on, things come up. With SEO, it’s a little bit hard on a day to day basis, but I try to zoom out and look at trends over time to make sure we’re not missing anything.
We’re in such a dynamic industry that sometimes priorities shift from day to day. So it’s important to connect with cross functional partners and ensure we are in sync with the focus areas for the business. And I also check in with my team on things that we are working on.
Then head back home and try to hit the gym in the evening. And just unwind with a book or some TV to end the day. Very, very routine.
Christine: Routine is good, right?
Priyal: Yeah, it helps me.
Christine: So, two final questions. First, the whole purpose of these interviews is about building a community around marketing — sharing our stories, talking about the thing that we’re doing. What would you look for in your ideal marketing community?
Priyal: A diverse and inclusive community of open-minded marketers. It would be an open environment where people are willing to share and learn from each other. It would be collaborative in that people are willing to help others grow and — mentorship is a great opportunity too. I’m always interested in learning about other people’s journeys and seeing the different paths they may have taken, so that would be very valuable.
Christine: What is the weirdest work-appropriate thing you’ve ever googled?
Priyal: I don’t know if this is weird or not, but there was this one time when I had a really noisy neighbor at work and I didn’t know how to tell them without offending them. We were good friends too, so I Googled funny ways to tell them they’re annoying. That’s the only thing I can think of that’s work-appropriate.