Brent Watters, Search Marketing Manager at Ariat, talked to us for our Humans of Marketing series about his journey through marketing at Ariat, and the pros of working at a small company. He also told us why Google sometimes feels like a customer, and explained how washing pigs at an animal sanctuary can be a source of marketing inspiration.
Christine: How did you get started in marketing, and what has been your career path up until this point?
Brent: My father had been in retail for his whole life — working at companies like Target, Kohl’s, Burlington Coat Factory — and he always told me growing up, “Get a job in the business. Get a good job, but work on the other side. Don’t work for the stores, work for the corporations.” That led me to start thinking about the aspect of business that I’d really enjoy — what was the sexy piece of business? Was it the software bit? Was it marketing? What was it?
Eventually, it did lead me to marketing. The idea of getting people to learn about a product that can benefit their life really clicked in my head one day — I think it was in a high school economics class. That’s when things really pulled together, and I immediately wanted to follow that degree in college.
I went to Sonoma State and got my undergraduate in business with a concentration in marketing, and there, my love for it just grew. My friends and I had developed a few different websites, practicing digital marketing around electronic music blogs, and other kinds of blogs. I just dipped my toes in whatever I could get my hands on at the time, and I learned WordPress. Web development has always been interesting to me. When I graduated college, I was one of those very lucky people who couldn’t find a job immediately after, so I applied to the master’s program and I got my MBA at San Francisco State. I did the two-year course in one year.
It gave me additional skills I could take into the workforce. We learned a lot about decision sciences, which is basically really advanced Excel. I also learned a lot in terms of international brand marketing, and that helped me think about things on a bigger scale. It made me think about what I want to eventually grow to, and I realized that I wanted to do whatever I could to help the little guy.
I pursued an MBA in business administration with a concentration in digital marketing sustainability, and I did that because it was amazing to see what small companies could do with such small budgets while still making an impact. Whether it’s providing water filter straws for countries that couldn’t have clean water, or creating solar panels that can power cars or batteries or homes — that kind of thing is always stuck in my head. The idea that what one person or a small team does can benefit a large group of people really, really stuck out to me.
Flash forward, I graduated with my MBA and I went into a Marketing Coordinator role at Ariat. It was strictly an administrative job; I was literally putting footwear samples away.
What got me really interested was how much Ariat cared about its wholesalers. Even when we started selling directly to consumers, we still cared so much, and we’re still so passionate about all of our wholesale brands, everyone from our huge multi-million dollar level accounts like Boot Barn, to the little mom-and-pop shop out of Texas.
After doing the administrative job, I got into print production and print marketing with them. When I was there, I really started to figure out what I was doing that helped stores sell these products. I used a counter card, or some sort of point of purchase material that would help consumers actually convert.
Eventually I got a basic level job in digital marketing for Ariat.com, and I was able to learn a ton about paid. It was paid, paid, paid, every minute I was learning about PPC and all the pay-to-play opportunities that we have in digital marketing.
But what I really wanted to get into was organic — that was the final thing that clicked for me. I realized I could help Ariat do better in organic search, and that it would be something that could apply to a ton of other companies as well because organic allows anybody to compete on the same level. Obviously there are things like domain authority, but at the end of the day, a blogger can be at home and create a really good piece of content for a keyword that no one’s really identified yet. They can rank number one for that.
How I got ultimately into SEO was I left Ariat in July to pursue a job at Gymboree. While I was at Gymboree, I was handling a lot of paid, and I started doing a little bit more organic content. We were writing things along the lines of: Five Things to Take Your Baby Home In, or Five Must-Haves for New Parents. I was really enjoying the work, but I wasn’t happy there and the company was going bankrupt. I was also being poached by my ex-boss here, who wanted to hit a few organic search goals, and it all just kind of clicked.
I realized I could go back to a company that I really loved and appreciated, help them with their organic goals, and get the tools I’d need to succeed later on in life, since organic is something I actually love. Paid was fun. Paid is the sexy job, but for me, I love being able to have a direct impact on organic, and being able to show the cool things that our company can do for free. Plus, I can help our wholesale accounts and give them advice on how to talk about our products to help them rank as well.
Ultimately, who knows where I’ll be in 10 years, but if I can still be doing organic and doing something to help somebody out for free, help them find content, that’s huge for me.
I was at the Conductor conference this year [C3], and one of the talks was by a speaker who was looking for a dog, and he found dog adoption agencies in New York. A piece of content helped him find his dog, and that really stuck with me. I’m 100% organic all the way.
Christine: Tell me a little bit more about what inspires you, beyond that incredible story.
Brent: A lot of it is you guys, because you give me the tools to do it. It’s a lot of being able to watch what our efforts do on a daily basis. With SEO, you might make a change and it won’t actually do something for two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, but when it does, it’s almost like the gears start shifting, and you can see the direct impact your work has.
Being able to track it is huge. We can literally see, we made this change on this date, and it took Google this amount of time to figure it out, but once it did, we got this amount of revenue back, or this number of impressions, or this ranking increase for certain keywords. That’s what really gets me excited. You have your SEO Toolbox, and when you go to work, there are certain things you can pull out and mess with a little every day, but once you find those systematic hacks, those are really interesting to me.
For our website, we’re currently in the process of re-doing almost everything from checkout to taxonomy. When we first launched it, we wanted it to be friendly and simple for someone who doesn’t know the brand or one of our wholesale partners.
You could go to Men, and click Western Footwear and find cowboy boots, but you could also go to Men’s Footwear, Western, and find those same cowboy boots. It made sense at the time, but it didn’t really help Google at all. We had duplicate content for every single thing. We were able to go in and make a systematic change by adding all of these cool canonical tags everywhere, and use Conductor to track that. Now we’re able to see just this really nice, smooth growth over time, which helps us inform our plan going forward.
It’s almost like we have a third customer. We have one customer for our direct to consumer, we have one customer for our wholesale, but Google is the third customer. So we have to make it the best for all three pieces.
Christine: Tell me what your team looks like — who are you interacting with every day, and who are you influencing both on and off the marketing team?
Brent: Our current team is pretty green. I think the most senior person has been here for about two and a half years, and then there’s me who’s been here for five years total. I did leave for that six months, but no one talks about that here.
Our team overall is pretty small, and everyone is fairly new to the brand, but what’s interesting is, we have a direct line to the marketing team, we’re fully integrated with the brand team, and we’re fully integrated with the retail team/ When we have a product launch, we all work to do what we need in each particular channel to hit this common goal.
For example, we’re launching a fashion line, we have the brand team to pioneer what the look and feel of the assets will be, and our team is able to leverage certain assets in certain ways, whether it’s for social marketing, or PPC, all these different types of different channels.
Being in so many different roles, I work really well cross-functionally with a lot of different people. Whether it’s the operations team, the logistics team, the design team, I know a lot about these people. And Ariat’s such a small company that you also know these people’s kids’ names, you know what they do on the weekends, you know their hobbies. That’s one of the really great aspects about working here, and also it helps me, because when I have a question about a product, I know exactly who to call.
If I’m worried about what I’m typing and whether it’s on-brand, I can call the brand team, and I can also call the product manager and ask her, “Hey, does this make sense?” So having that kind of smaller, flatter company helps in that sense, and also having the years here definitely helps as well.
Christine: Yes, that sounds amazing. Tell me a little bit more about working at Ariat. What makes it a special place? What makes Ariat a good place for you as a marketer, and a human being?
Brent: Our CEO Beth Cross, she’s in the office every day with us. She says hi to everybody, she hugs people, she is a very approachable person, and it really does make you feel like you’re aligned with what the company is trying to accomplish, and trying to get done.
We have quarterly presentations with her, and along as the rest of the senior team, the CFO, the international team as well, and they are really curious to see what our team is doing, and what they can do to help our team.
Having that has really kind of helped the culture kind of stem down from there in a sense where everybody does want to see everyone succeed here. There truly is a huge camaraderie sense.
We have monthly meetings called “all boots meetings,” kind of all hands, but all boots, and people are excited, people are clapping, people are really happy to be a part of this company. People are appreciating each other. I think it really starts with the CEO, and it trickles down to everybody else. There’s a real family sense here.
We are an eclectic company, and we’re an eclectic group of people, but the one thing that keeps us together in common is that family, is that wanting everyone to succeed. I think that’s the common thread throughout the whole company.
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Christine: Tell me about something brand new that you’re trying out, or a skill you’re learning. How are you developing and growing this year, as a marketer, but also as a person?
Brent: In business, we’re on Salesforce, and kind of the ongoing joke is how do you actually publish content on Salesforce. We just launched in a CMS solution for that. We’re working with a new company that will allow us to actually create text-based content on the site, and really help telling stories. A lot of these businesses we’re in, a lot of this you can only find information from word of mouth. If you are wanting to be a better equestrian horse rider, you go to a certain barn, and train there. If you want to learn certain tips and tricks on how to keep your cowboy boots clean, or better techniques for riding horses, anything like that, you find out from your own farm, or you find out from your friends, or from competitions.
What we’re trying to do is trying to develop more content on-site that’ll help us tell stories like that, to really try to get people who are brand new to the brand who are searching a very generic query. We’re trying to help people who are looking for a solution, they can find this information on our website and then continue to shop further.
That’s something I’m really excited about, and that’s coming really, really soon. It’ll really just open up the gates for a lot of new pages, a lot of new content, a lot of new stories on the site.
Brent: And then in my own personal life, I am involved in a bunch of different things. My wife and I have an event industry business. I run a YouTube channel with a bunch of some of the guys here, as well as friends from home. I’m also in a band.
It’s all the same, it all revolves around making content. It all revolves around new ways to publish content. Whether that’s social, Instagram, WordPress, or whatever ways there are available to make content, that makes me really excited.
It’s allowing people who know a little bit about something, or know a lot about something little, to make their own path, make their own revenue stream.
Christine: How do you spread the word about the data, insights, and intelligence you’re working with through SEO? How do you give other people at Ariat the access and the help that kind of data can provide?
Brent: That’s a great question. This is the first time there’s been a role dedicated to SEO here. The theme when I came here was, “How can we report on this? How can we use our tools to figure out the exact steps people can take?” The first one was really just giving a weekly report designed for everyone to have a very top-level insight into how SEO is doing.
So we have a report that goes out every Monday to everyone from the senior team down to my co-workers. And now that I’m being pulled into more and more meetings, there are more opportunities to do reporting. We are in meetings with a lot with our merchants, or a lot of our buyers for Ariat.com, and they’re trying to figure out trends before they happen.
Using conductor, we’re able to actually pull and create reports that show on a weekly basis what are some of these hot terms that are changing, and which are ones that are on a path of growth overall through time. We can really see if something is growing, if it’s something we should be in for the long haul. So trend reporting has been huge for us.
Another good example is, we track the word “hunting boots,” and hunting boots has more searches than a lot of our other boots that we actively try to market, but now that we’re able to find this insight, we’re able to go to our team and say “Hey, we should be doing more about marketing this product, there’s more of a demand out there than there ever was before.”
Christine: Tell me a little bit how you promote your wins, and what your team has accomplished?
Brent: The real benefit here is that our teams are interested and invested in so many different pieces of work. Every day, I get a comment from my VP saying either the CEO, the CFO, or the VP of Finance has some sort of question about my work, which is amazing to me because that means people are actually reading my reports and understanding what I’m putting down, and they’re asking what they can do to help.
People actively get what SEO is here. They’ve done the work to understand what it is, and we have been harping on it for quite some time because before January, we didn’t really have the best strategy overall, and there wasn’t someone in the role to do it. So because of that, it really has been nice organizational shift in the sense that people are interested specifically in SEO. That’s a gift and a curse you might say.
When we share wins, we make sure that they’re digestible. We don’t go up and say, this keyword drove 20% more traffic to our site than last week, we want to make sure that whatever it is, is very easy to understand and to grasp. So we’ll share the actual rankings growth. A great example is earlier this year, we jumped from, I think it was, spot 12 to spot 3 for the term, “FR Clothing.” That was huge for us. We had never been anywhere close to the first page, and we jumped up there with some quick little URL optimizations, and that was a really great share out.
We were able to do a share out to the team about that specific increase on Google, how it was important, and then we got into a little bit into the weeds in terms of what we can expect from the traffic now, using Conductor to figure out click through curve, and trying to understand exactly what kind of revenue impact this will have.
We do our best to share it out in the best digestible form possible, and then also give them the bonus of what it means in terms of the site as well. People are just excited, and that’s great.
Christine: Congratulations, that’s not easy. That kind of jump is not for the faint of heart.
Brent: Thank you. We did go back down to four recently, we’re trying to figure that back out, but we were at two for a while, and we felt great about that.
Christine: What are you most proud of having worked on as a marketer, and this doesn’t have to be just in your current position. What makes you feel really good about the work you’ve done?
Brent: I have two answers to that. One is the project I’m currently working on, which is the whole taxonomy of our website. It will be something I’m extremely proud of. I’m extremely proud of the work I’ve done for it already, but once it actually gets done, and I can see our time on site go up, I can see our conversion rate go up, and I can see all these impacts from just putting people to the right streams on our website, that’ll be huge for me. I’m always proud of when people can find the products they need easier.
And then another thing that I’m proud about is, Ariat values growing people and helping them become leaders, and ever since I was 23 years old, out of college working an admin job, to where I am now, it’s always been the same way — what can this person do to grow?
I am extremely proud when I get to have those conversations where we get to think really top strategy, really top level, and give insights that are valued.
Christine: As you’re learning, developing, and growing as a marketer and as a person, what are you looking forward to in the next year?
Brent: The first one is, going back to what I was saying about the content on the site, that is going to be absolutely huge for us. One of my independent development goals for this year is to complete the Treehouse HTML course.
I haven’t really coded since my Myspace days, and I’m excited for that because I can publish better, easier content quickly, and not need to have that HTML person backed up, or have that bottleneck of IT.
Also, we are constantly testing different parts of the site, and I’m always excited to learn about what things are working for which target, when. Whether that’s our homepage, whether that’s adding a new banner to the top of the page, whether that’s testing a sort order. You can really take insights away that aren’t necessarily revenue driving insights, but experience driving insights.
Christine: What do you do outside of marketing that makes you a better marketer?
Brent: There is one thing, and it kind of marries up into this big idea of helping people, or helping the little guy. My wife and I, we volunteer at an animal sanctuary called Charlie’s Acres out in Napa, and we go once or twice a month to help. A lot of it is scooping up poop, but we go help pigs that were saved from the slaughter industry, or cows from the dairy industry, or a lot of animals that would have died. They can be surrendered into the animal sanctuary, and they can live an amazing life there.
We go volunteer a lot, and it’s amazing to me because they recently became, they recently went public so they can have public tours come through, and they try and drive revenue to get more animals and help more animals. What’s amazing to me is, when I’m there, how much I think about marketing, because it’s how I know I can make the biggest impact.
At the end of the day, if I scrub a bunch of pigs down with moisturizing conditioner because it’s hot out, that’s one thing that’s amazing, and it’s fun, but I’m also able to think in the back of my head, “How can we get more people here to help to do this so that we can help save more pigs? So we can help save more animals?”
I’m thinking about, “Hey, have you guys tried advertising? Have you guys tried this, and this, and that? I can help you set that up. Hey, we should make some pages for these animals.” All these different things, to the point where I’m probably annoying them, but it’s really cool to be able to help
Christine: What is a piece of marketing advice you would give to someone just getting started? What should they know? What should they be looking for, or doing?
Brent: In today’s day and age, there are a lot of core channels, and a lot of emerging channels. There is a lot to learn. You’re not going to learn all this in school, unless you have a really up-to-date professor.
You’ve got to be hungry for knowledge. You’ve got to be hungry to understand all these different pieces in marketing, especially digital marketing. And then you can find one, or two, or three pieces that you really love, and that you really feel passionate about, and then you can use those as something that will set you up for life, and a career.
Digital marketing can be very by the numbers and very by the books, but you have to work with people, and partner with people, and do things that will eventually help your customer.
I can’t stress that enough — learn as much as you can about all the different aspects there are, and then find the aspects that you think drive value.
Christine: Tell me a little bit about what you read, watch, and who you listen to in the marketing world?
Brent: I am a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Anything he puts out, I think is amazing. There’s good insights, and there’s studies, and there’s ways of thinking about things in a different way. He’s definitely my number one go to.
I look less at people, and I look more at what other brands are doing for inspiration. I look at how other brands are developing content, are developing pieces that help their consumer.
I’m a big fan of seeing what’s out in the world, and seeing how we can adapt something to make something similar, or make something better. Not copying it, but figuring out what was the strategy, and how can we use it to help to our customers as well.
Christine: A lot of the marketers we talk to, and I suppose people in general, look to music to help them focus, help them get pumped up. What’s one song, artist, or album that you turn to?
Brent: The number one song that I listened to over and over and over again with my mom in middle school, and high school, was Nora Jones, Come Away With Me. Me and my mom really connected over that album, and also, randomly enough, it was also playing when I picked up my dog from the pound. That album means a lot in my life, but because I know it so well, I can just listen to that album while I work on repeat, and it won’t distract me. It will keep me focused. It will keep me happy. That is hands down, my number one album.
Christine: Final question — what’s the weirdest, but appropriate to put in print, thing that you’ve ever googled?
Brent: I DJ, and I have DJed ever since college, it’s how I paid my way through college. Me and my friend were investing a ton of money into this really cool live show that we could do at college parties, because college parties always want to be as cool as possible, and they actually pay a lot of money, all the fraternities and sororities.
Probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever had to google with that would be “how to hook up laser to DMXIS address to align with dance floor.” What that means is, we had a dance floor lighting, we used a software called DMIXIS, and we had a laser, and I couldn’t figure out how to get them all to work together.