In this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Andrew Warden. Andrew is the CMO of Semrush – an online visibility management SaaS platform that has been used by millions of marketers worldwide including this one.
A crucial component of growth is experimentation. Experimentation is the engine that drives innovation. It helps businesses implement and test ideas quickly so that you can learn and define failure and success quickly and pivot accordingly. In this episode, I talk with the CMO of Semrush, Andrew Warden, about leading a mature organization and how experimentation helps push its growth as an organization.
Questions I ask Andrew Warden:
- [1:40] Setting the record straight on how to pronounce “Semrush”
- [2:44] What prepared you to take on this job at Semrush, a really somewhat mature organization?
- [4:52] As a CMO, given the DNA, and all these acronyms of the organization, do you feel a tug to just do more SEO sometimes?
- [6:38] I want to talk a little more about your experimental process – do you have a process for saying, you know, we’re gonna throw these 10 things out there and this is how we’re going to measure them?
- [11:41] Today, Semrush offers many more solutions other than an SEO tool – what’s been the challenging part of redefining what people view your company as?
- [14:08] As a mature organization, how do you balance the need for branding versus the need to acquire more users?
- [17:16] Is there a small set of metrics that you rely on?
- [19:43] So pretend you are speaking to a group of CMOs in an audience only today and somebody said, what do you think is the biggest challenge for most CMOs today? What would your answer be?
- [22:44] Where can people learn more?
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John Jantsch (00:00): This episode or the duct tape marketing podcast is brought to you by the nudge podcast, hosted by Phil Agnew and brought to you by the HubSpot podcast network. You can learn the science behind great marketing with bite size 20 minute episodes packed with practical advice from admired marketers and behavioral scientists. Nudge is a fast pace, but still insightful with real world examples that you can apply. Her recent issue. Talked about the, the idea of getting your customers, your prospects in the habit of buying from you or listening to you or following you habit based marketing, download, nudge, wherever you get your podcasts. Hello, and welcome to another episode of the duct tape marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Andrew Warden. He is the CMO of Semush. Semrush. We'll talk about that. Yeah. Time in the second square we're on behalf our conversation, right?
Andrew Warden (01:14): Great. Thanks so much. So good to be here. And let me just clarify, let me just jump really quick, cuz this is like one of the hottest contested things in our community, I would say. And beyond it is Semrush here, it here, here, the way that it sounds the way it rolls off your tongue, you think people it's true historically it was Semrush and it didn't help when we went public because our stock checker is S E M R so people automatically, but if you wanna know where the brand and the heart is, it's with Semrush.
John Jantsch (01:40): Yeah, I actually was gonna ask you that directly and then I actually blew it in the intro
Andrew Warden (01:59): Other? No, you know, I think it's, I actually, I don't think it's necessarily linked to geography. Yeah. I think that's linked to history. Right? Number one, because originally right, the founding of the company was, it's always like square in the search engine marketing at the yeah. Yeah. Kind of die hard SEO community. And that's true. And that's still very much a core of our community, but you know, now gosh, 14 years later, we're 55 plus tools. Not only SEO, not only at the sweet spot. So I think it's probably more linked to his history and maybe our, maybe our diehard SEO fans. Right. S SCM. Right? Yeah.
John Jantsch (02:34): So you've been, in fact, I think you had a LinkedIn post at celebrating your one year anniversary mm-hmm
Andrew Warden (02:49): Yeah. Well, I mean, this is my third time as a CMO, right? So it's not my first rodeo. I would say, I think you're referencing this, this LinkedIn post. I, you know, it's taken me so many years to be absolutely comfortable with being vulnerable as a leader, wearing my heart on my sleeve. There's a lot of people who totally go against this concept or they say, no, you should always be rather stoic and be very, you know, but I, you know, after years and years, you know, working with people from all different backgrounds know late state later stage career, early stage career at the end of the day, you know, people just want a path to grow. They want a path to grow themselves. They want, obviously we want to earn, but people wanna be engaged, you know? And so that post I was reflecting after a year, you know, it's like all of the things, all of the points in my career of the super Heights, you know, being at Cisco when I was in my early twenties, you know, promoted several times in a couple of years to crashing and burning effectively with a startup, with our own money and you know, several other people's money.
(03:46): And we're all still friends, but the points of the, kind of the peaks and the valleys, and even some of the troughs it's like, you know, had this moment, this illuminating moment a couple weeks ago where it's like, this was all preparing for this exact moment actually. Right. And that's really resonated with I'm. I'm really curious and happy that you bring it up. Cuz a lot of people have been talking about this, right? It's like not many officers of public companies are making such statements, but I have to, you know, and it resonates with our team internally. It resonates with people outside. Yeah.
John Jantsch (04:13): Frankly I think self-awareness is the new like key leadership skill, frankly.
Andrew Warden (04:17): I, I couldn't agree with you more. I, you know, really, you know, I, I, for years it's always kind of this player, coach mentality, you know, people at the, my job at the end of the day, again, I am a very hands on CMO. I get stuck into at any given day, I get stuck into ad copy or going to board level to add copy. I'm always there to jump in and help a junior and to senior member of the team out. But at the end of the day, you know, I just try to remove as many blockages and those can be sometimes budget or resource blockage, but it can also be psychological blockage. Right. Sometimes people get in the way of themselves how to unlock people. And that's where I think the awareness that you're talking about, you know, really comes in. Yeah.
John Jantsch (04:53): So as a CMO, given the DNA, all these acronyms
Andrew Warden (05:04): So I feel a tug to do more SEO. No, actually it, yeah.
John Jantsch (05:08): I mean to use that, like as your core
Andrew Warden (05:09): Channel, I got you. Yeah. That's a great question. Actually. I can tell you something. No, cuz it's been the opposite this year. Right? I can tell you that this year, this past year we made significant, I mean incremental significant and material investments into large scale paid campaigns. And actually that was a really interesting inflection point for us as a company. It's like, you know, we, we are on a rocket ship trajectory, right? We have the, again, all the DNA, as you said of a startup culture, right? High educated risk taking high experimentation, fast fail and like a matter of weeks versus quarters and quarters. And I really look at the whole mix, but one of the things that I noticed as soon as I came in September of 29, excuse me, 2021 is that we were not experimenting as much as I would like to with paid. Right. Because we have very, very competitive, I'd say ad positions compared to other others in our sets. But I will tell you that the organic piece for next year and for the others, there will start to be more balance. But no, I don't, I don't, I don't face any problems of inertia if you will, on, you know, given that SEO is at our core, but at the same time, it's also something that we should be pretty damn good at. Right. Because we that's how we started
John Jantsch (06:20): Yeah. I hate to say it. I always, you know, I get pitches like everybody from SEO experts that are gonna put me on page one and it's like, I can't find you
Andrew Warden (06:29): It's a big deal. And also anyone promising a silver bullet like that, especially so quickly. Right, right. It's always something to be very wary of. Yeah.
John Jantsch (06:37): Yeah, absolutely. So, so let's talk a little more about your experimental process. Yeah. I mean, do you have a process for saying totally. You know, we're gonna throw these 10 things out there. Here's how we're gonna measure. 'em I'd love to hear
Andrew Warden (06:47): That. We absolutely do. So I'd like to, we have a, a system set up and this was already in place before I joined. I'm just putting, I'm just adding more fuel to it. I would say at least from a marketing side. So we have a quarterly bets and experimentation program. And I like to think of it. These are totally my words. I was like O OKRs on steroids, right? This is like, you know, BES are what we believe is possible. And we have a format that's really clear. It's like, what is it that we wanna do? Why is it needed? Why do we believe X is possible? And here's how we measure success. Like here's what success is. And here's what failure is. And the most important thing is crucial for me is that it's okay for a bet to fail. And when, you know, for me, this is also the big difference, in my opinion of like on a big corporate, uh, versus a company like Sam, right.
(07:39): I would rather a leader usually, you know, that can be conceived by anybody in the company. Right. But I will hold our VPs or heads of accountable for, for the mixture between experiments. And that's the, I would rather somebody focus on two, three or four bets, you know, if one of them pans off, you know, pans out, like we're off to the races, I'm always after a sign of life, you know? And so it is so helpful to hear how teams think about bets on a quarterly basis of, yeah, we think that we can capture more people through advertising on Hulu. We think that BEC, which is a new channel, right. We think that's possible because you know, X percent of our demographic for this persona hangs out there. Right. And we believe it's possible to achieve X number of registrations trials, subscriptions, or payments.
(08:27): And if it makes less than a certain amount, we're like, you know what? It just didn't work out. And we should not do that for another couple of years. And it's very similar with experiments. I would say are a little bit, even more further afield. Like it's could even liven more out there. Right? We have a hypothesis that actually, we just did one of these experiments. I don't have the result yet, which is kind of a let down for this kind of conversation. Sorry. But we did a direct mail experiment. How's that for a SEO or for a digital marketing company, you know, it's like, I wait to the team and I said said, has anybody sense, literally, a mailer to small business owners, you know, cuz I had this contention that small business owners, it's not necessarily like me or like you or somebody else who hangs out online. Right. The barber. Yeah.
John Jantsch (09:08): They're not reading search engine land, the barber
Andrew Warden (09:10): Who's cutting my hair, who I love. Right. Is opening the door for me, cutting my hair, sweeping the floor register, you know like this person is on LinkedIn, you know? It's like, how are you reaching that person? So, so we did two different tests over the summer or sorry one over the summer. I think one just went out as well. So I'm waiting to see, I have no idea, but this is what I, you know, you ask about experimentation and you always have to make sure that you're carving out, you know, 10, 10, 15% of your budget of your spend to try new channels. Because the moment that you rest on the laurels of the channel, that's working so well for you is the moment it stops doing that.
John Jantsch (09:46): No question
Andrew Warden (10:01): Because absolutely right. Yep. Yeah, no, you can't just like you can't just be like, Hey John, I wanna, you know, I want to go and take out and add in the wall street journal. Okay. Why do you wanna do that? I don't know. I mean a lot of people read it. No, you know, you know, you have to be able to, I mean, look, you could, there are ways to make that more scientific. You can say, you know, during this period there or the wall street journal, you know, more for financially focused people, it's like earnings typically happen between this day and this day tech earnings come out between this day and this day. So we want to run this and with this type of promotion, because people in that demographic tend to buy around that period. It all has to be, it's quite, it's a lot more scientific than I had anticipated. I'll put it that way, but I love that. You're
John Jantsch (10:42): Gonna, you, you're gonna get a sales call from the wall street journal. Now I
Andrew Warden (10:45): Guarantee you. Yeah, well we're already talking to him. That's okay.
John Jantsch (10:49): Now let's hear from a sponsor, you know, today everybody's online, but are they finding your website, grab the online spotlight and your customer's attention with Semrush from content and SEO to ads and social media. Semrush is your one stop shop for online marketing build, manage and measure campaigns across all channels faster and easier. Are you ready to take your business to the next level? Get seen, get Semrush, visit Semrush that's Semrush.com/go to try it free for seven days. All right. You kind of may alluded to this already, but I was going to ask you, I mean, it's certainly, I've been, uh, a Semush user for many years. Thank you. And I certainly saw it as, uh, as an SEO tool. Mm-hmm
Andrew Warden (11:57): A challenge? It's a, it's a huge, I mean, it's still very much in progress, right? I mean, again, we are so, and thank you for being a user for all these years as well. You know, I don't take anything for granted and there's so many solutions out there. I would say that, you know, we, we believe, you know, over the next several years and we, I mean, if we see it right now, we feel it right now in the, but we also know, particularly with small business owners that breaking through the noise in today's market, right. This, and that's, it's not even necessarily new, this kind of like fragmented view for a consumer and, you know, people spend on average seven hours online, you know, it's but how do you actually get through all of that noise and reach a perspective customer? How are you building your audiences?
(12:33): And, you know, again, all respects like that started out with SEO, you know, but at the same time we realized over time that there's a need amongst our own user base and our future customers for content creation for marketer, you know, you name it, you know, for traffic analytics, right? It's not only about finding what your audience is looking for, what they're searching for. It's also like how do I solve the problem of now figuring out how to talk to them and engage them. Right. So if you're asking me, is it a challenge to change how we're, how we are viewed in the market? Absolutely. You know, but at, you know, at the same time and we're adding, uh, we're adding our growth rate has not slowed over the last couple of years. So when you think about a comp, a KR, a compounding annual growth, we are, our velocity is not slowing down. So we are adding more and more people and expanding our own audience and reach. So I would imagine the days where this is a big, you know, question for the future, the days where, you know, this kind of Semrush or the core of SEO, I think that will always remain amongst, especially our initial users. But I think that there's also a future people join because they have like myriad problems they're trying to solve. Right. Not only SU yeah.
John Jantsch (13:41): Yeah. And that's how they're introduced to you. Yes. Yeah. You know of the brand is different. Yeah. Let's move a little bit to cuz, cuz I know you're running some, you know, some television that is, I would call it very branding oriented as opposed to say growth oriented. But has that, is that a conscious, in other words, it's not saying by this because it'll get you this result. Mm-hmm
Andrew Warden (14:03): That kind of, are you talking about that kind of thing? Are you talking about the most recent one? Yeah. Okay. Okay. I call this
John Jantsch (14:08): And that's just an example. My real question is, you know, how do you as an organization, that's this mature, how do you start? How do you start balancing mm-hmm
Andrew Warden (14:20): Users. I think the problem starts is that we think they're separate
(14:24): Because those campaigns are the goal for those campaigns are new users and they're achieving them. The first one we did in the year will exceed the target. The second, which the second campaign, which is, which was a dedicated for a small business owners. And we're, you know, this year is as much as it has been are, you know, about growth. We're also doing what I call these grown experiments, large experiments. So these foray into connected TV advertising the, using the same creative that can be used for, of course banners and digital classic. We can also then use that. There's so much production value. You can turn around to Hulu or YouTube connected TV, Disney plus like you name it. And you can like literally upload that ad and set a budget and go. So this year is also about testing new audiences, new ideas, new ways to engage.
(15:12): And one of our big bets is looking at what I would call and I didn't mean to correct you, but what I mean is that there's like brand, you are right. That like the approach is more about positioning the company and how it can help you grow. Right? This is this I call, these are, this is a customer needs based play versus a classic like, you know, every tool you need for X per month, right? That's more of what you call the classic performance or growth marketing. Yeah. Those hacks. But guess what? We're really good at the ladder. Like we're pretty okay at that. Right. In terms of digital and paid and even on the organic side, but we have incredibly aggressive growth plans over the next five to 10 years. And so I've gotta be able to lay my head on the pillow at night, knowing that we're testing every new channel, every new style of marketing and advertising that we can to keep new or existing and new customers engaged. So, but I do love how you distinction. You make a distinction right. From off the bat. Cause I get that a lot. People are like, well, you know, but this is a big kind of like kind of branding push on connected TV. And it's like, yeah, but we can trace back the connection that we acquired, that, that user, the attention of that user from that ad. And we can trace it through to visiting us. We can trace it through to registering doing a trial and eventually becoming summer's customer. So
John Jantsch (16:31): Yeah, you, I think you can almost make a case for saying it's targeting. It is in a way, because I think your core acquisition person that says these tools for this much and they know what those tools are. Right.
Andrew Warden (16:48): Yeah. And again, these are very large place and I, I'm not here saying every single one of these is gonna knock it outta the apartments goal obviously. But I think that I can tell you that the entire team, the entire its 200, 200 marketers in the organization every day, we're learning every day, we're stretching what we thought was possible again on our existing user base, what people want to expand for their relationship with summers, but also like net new people who have totally different needs and value sets compared to existing. Yeah.
John Jantsch (17:16): So couple maybe these are your easy questions. Maybe these are hard. Sure. Couple more questions. Is there a small set of metrics that you rely on as
Andrew Warden (17:26): A C a small set? No, they're only big. Yeah.
John Jantsch (17:29): I wanted to say small because
Andrew Warden (17:34): Well, yeah. I, I would say small at Semrush is big and it would be, I would, I wouldn't want in any other way, but the ones that I really live in the stress or get excited, you know, we measure very much on new user. Mr. So look, you know, know as a SAS based company, you've got SA classic SA SA metrics and we are a very different organization in terms of marketing than I would say at other kind of corporations or big company. You know, a lot of companies marketing is assisting with sales and kind of provides M QLS or SQLs to sales leadership. And then they carry on and close the deal at Semrush. Actually it's a little bit different. We are responsible for bringing in new user acquisition, right. And that's a material difference from other companies. So the emphasis and the laser focus on metrics is like not optional.
(18:22): You have to know every day. So I'm looking at, I'm looking always at registrations at trials. Trials is always a leading indicator. If, you know, if we see a swell in trials, there will be a, certainly a bump in new subscriptions. But new user MRI is my first, the first kind of traffic light. If you will, I'm also looking at increase or decline of our own spending, right? Because sometimes we slow down the engine either during holiday periods or periods where we don't think people are gonna have the propensity to buy and that's, we don't always get that. Right. You know, it's hard to know when to pull, pull or release that lever. I'm also looking at global dynamics, like different by different markets. Like right now the dollar fluctuation, you know, is difficult for a lot of companies. Right. And yeah, yeah. You know, in Europe, gosh, I just came back from meetings with the team in Amsterdam, in London.
(19:07): I got back late last night and you know what, you actually, you see and feel not only inflation, but also the currency of fluctuation, you know, in London, it's like 1.15 to the dollar. I mean, even when I was in grad school in 2007, it was never that low, you know, it's like, it hasn't been that low in, in 30 years or something. So, so there are different dynamics about the global economy. But I would say if you're asking for the shortest list, the shortest list, I get nine emails every morning at 7:32 AM that give me the holistic view of the business, but I would tease those as the kind of the ones that really matter. Yeah.
John Jantsch (19:42): Yeah. All right. So pretend you were speaking to a group of CMOs in an audience only today, and somebody said, what do you think is the biggest challenge for most CMOs today? What would your answer
Andrew Warden (19:55): Be? I would say the loss of innovation culture, and I would say too much emphasis on having to be the smartest person in the room that is to the CMO audience. I would say that it is increasingly more and more difficult. Look as marketers. We are, it's almost like encoded in our own DNA, our personal DNA, every single action you take must yield an outcome, must yield a financial improvement right. To, to the top line even. And I think that the reality is, you know, again, it depends on which stage of growth you're in as a company or even if you're even as a small business or large business. The fact is marketing is a constantly evolving and field. Literally the pitch, the field, the markers change every day. You know, as soon as, like I said before, as soon as you find a channel that works, it doesn't work anymore.
(20:44): Or you say something that your audience doesn't like, and then you kind of get like temporary put in the timeout box. You know, it's like it happens. But I think that is also conditioned people. And I would also, I do say this to my peers, that it conditions us to like be a risk averse and to not take, take too much time on experiments. I mean, I have, for example, every month I have what I call elevator pitch sessions. Like anybody can turn up to this call. It's like 15, 18 minutes long. You get two slides, you get five minutes, you know, it's like, what's your idea? What do you wanna do? What do you, you know, and it can be a request for like a 50 K campaign. It can be a request for a $5 million acquisition doesn't or 10 or whatever, you know, that's not the point.
(21:23): And it's funny, these are they're meant to be intentionally very snappy very quick. Like if anybody's kind of drowning on, it's like, come on, tell me that, what's the point, what's the point. But you know, I'll tell you, like, we've done real things based on those, like we've done, we've made that's cool, real investments, material investments. And so, yeah, I would just say that, you know, I think especially as a CMO, it's very easy to get kind of stuck in your own routine and rhythm of what works. And I think that's why I was just reflecting after a year. Like I have more energy John than when I started. And usually like, you know, you kind of know yourself at this stage in your career. Usually you're like, okay, I found this works. We're gonna go head into budgeting season and then we're gonna, we're gonna keep going. But like I make stuff. I make shit every single day, you know? And as soon as, as the CMO, I think is an executive leader, as soon as you stop doing that, like, like you personally, I think you have to kinda reevaluate what's going on. Right? Like
John Jantsch (22:15): I think those little mini pitches sound really empowering, especially imagine somebody who like got their deal.
Andrew Warden (22:20): Anybody. Yeah. No, but really, but we have like junior PR ex execs within the team, like with a handful of years of experience, like I want to do, I wanna try this, you know? And I'm like, why is that a good idea? Well, are you sure? Tell me why you believe it, you know? And it's like, it's even just going through that experience early in your career, it changes you. Right. It opens your mind and that's also, you know, really important to me.
John Jantsch (22:43): Yeah. Awesome. Well, Andrew, it was really a pleasure to have you sub by the duct tape marketing podcast. And we can, you can tell people how they can reach Semrush. You can spell it for them.
Andrew Warden (22:58): Semrush.com Semrush. Do. Yeah, I can't. Yeah. So I, I would that's as simple as it can be.
John Jantsch (23:03): Yeah, absolutely. Well, hopefully we'll run into you one of these days out there on the road. In fact, the end of this week, I'm gonna be in Austin. Oh,
Andrew Warden (23:10): Great. Stop by. Yeah.
John Jantsch (23:11): Which I know you are
Andrew Warden (23:12): For, for a drink. Cool. All right. Thanks for having me. Cheers.
John Jantsch (23:15): Appreciate it. Hey, and one final thing before you go, you know how I talk about marketing strategy strategy before tactics? Well, sometimes it can be hard to understand where you stand in that what needs to be done with regard to creating a marketing strategy. So we created a free tool for you. It's called the marketing strategy assessment. You can find it @ marketingassessment.co. Check out our free marketing assessment and learn where you are with your strategy today. That's just marketingassessment.co I'd. Love to chat with you about the results that you get.
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Everybody’s online, but are they finding your website? Grab the online spotlight and your customers’ attention with Semrush. From Content and SEO to ads and social media, Semrush is your one-stop-shop for online marketing. Build, manage, and measure campaigns —across all channels — faster and easier. Are you ready to take your business to the next level? Get seen. Get Semrush. Visit semrush.com/go to try it free for 7 days.