I had the pleasure of interviewing John Lincoln, CEO of Ignite Visibility.
Lincoln is a highly sought-after digital marketing strategist, industry speaker and winner of the coveted Search Engine Land “Search Marketer of the Year” award. With 16+ years of demanding experience, Lincoln has worked with over 1,000 online businesses including clients such as Office Depot, Tony Robbins, Morgan Stanley, Fox, USA Today, COX and The Knot WorldWide. He has also written two books (The Forecaster Method and Digital Influencer) and made two movies (SEO: The Movie and Social Media Marketing: The Movie) on digital marketing. Learn more at https://ignitevisibility.com and https://johnlincoln.marketing.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?
I’m a San Diego native and grew up surfing, playing soccer and was always really athletic. I’ve had a lot of injuries. I’ve had six surgeries and broken both my arms and both my legs, all from playing sports.
One of my last injuries was the worst and it helped me to find my life mission. I had a lot of time to think when I was in and out of the hospital for a year, and when I got out, I realized I was going to dedicate myself to something big. First, it was making a comeback in sports. I was able to become “Player of the Year” in soccer in high school, and then went on to play soccer and lacrosse in college.
After college, I always wanted to do something entrepreneurial. I wasn’t very good when I started and spent the next 10 years getting my MBA, getting experience and reading a lot. One of the books I came across was Awaken the Giant Within by Tony Robbins. I really enjoyed that book and made it my life’s mission to become an expert at digital marketing. That led me to become a teacher of analytics and search engine optimization at the University of California, San Diego, a director of digital marketing at a few different agencies and then I eventually launched Ignite Visibility in 2010. We’re now a 3 (going on 4)-time Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies listing and get to work with amazing brands like Tony Robbins.
Ignite Visibility is one of the most effective digital marketing agencies in the nation, and I’m incredibly proud of it. How to help others through digital marketing is the goal that I strive for every day. As part of this mission to help others via digital marketing, I’ve written two books and made two movies and constantly speak at events, write blogs and create videos.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or “take aways” you learned from that?
One of the stupidest things I did before starting Ignite Visibility (which is a perfect example of a dumb failure) was launching a website and not fully thinking it through.
I was trying to think of a niche product that I could sell at a high volume. So, I decided I would sell a skateboarding product because I love skateboarding. I talked one of my web developer friends into building a niche site. I worked with him on the process and we cranked out a beautiful new e-commerce website that sold skateboard bearings. We were so excited! We were in business and now we could sell skateboard bearings online all that we wanted! We were business owners, entrepreneurs — we had it all figured out!
Then we looked at each other and said, “Where are we going to get the skateboard bearings?”
We not only put in time to build a website, but to also get a website ranking in the number one position for skateboard bearings and Google — without having any skateboard bearings. We also never took the time to create any business model, projections or anything like that.
I was incredibly busy at the time and obviously didn’t think the whole thing through!
I made a few calls and tried to get somebody to give me skateboard bearings or do an affiliate relationship, but everybody I called just wanted me to do digital marketing for their website. They were really impressed by the SEO skills.
We let that site die a slow death, but it was pretty glorious to see it ranking number one for “skateboard bearings online” for so long.
I learned right then and there that I’m never going to launch an online business again without really thinking through the entire business model: marketing plan, expenses and the future of the business.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One of the books that helped me the most was Traction by Gino Wickman, which talks about the entrepreneur as a real operating system. It’s an amazing book that will break down a business to the granular level and help you ensure you have profitability, a clear mission and know how to run an organization with a regular cadence.
I also love Jack Welch’s book, Winning. That book will give you the perspective of running a billion-dollar company. When you read Winning in relation to Traction, you get the full view of a small business going to a big business. Both of these books inspired me, and there are elements of them in my book The Forecaster Method, which discusses how to create and scale the perfect digital strategy.
Other than those books, I’m also a big fan of Tony Robbins’ work, and consume a great deal of content from Ted talks, Audible, the Google Webmaster blog, Think with Google, The Wall Street Journal and Entrepreneur magazine.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company, what was your vision, your purpose?
I highly encourage everybody to have a purpose-driven business. Ignite Visibility strongly believes in this, and we crafted our mission statement around this concept. For us, it’s not about digital marketing — it’s about the outcome.
“Provide the most effective digital marketing solutions in the industry, a high-touch customer experience, deliver results and use profits to reinvest in client success, employee success and the community.”
I love this mission statement. It’s very full circle because the better we do for clients, the more we get to give back to those we love, our employees and even do philanthropic activities. We currently support Padres Pedal the Cause, a bike race fundraiser that helps people who have cancer, and Reality Changers, an organization that helps underprivileged kids get into college. We set aside money every single year for additional employee education and helping new companies through pro-bono work and donations. It’s what drives me every day because the harder I work, the more people benefit.
Our vision is to work with people who are number one in their space or to take people to become number one in their space. We want to work with the best companies at the highest level and with the most innovative digital marketing strategy. That’s what gets me excited: the science, the creativity, the analytics, and the relationships that come from the business. My favorite thing to do is set a strategy, hit goals, and then celebrate.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The number one principle that guides me is providing unquestionable value. I consistently provide more value than people pay me for. It works like this: I give away hundreds of free content pieces every month and often consult with people for free on how to grow their business.
These efforts eventually turn into people who need additional help and want to hire us for services; however, I never bring these people on without doing a strategy, timeline, project plan and forecast around the results that they will get with our help. When we do this, it makes it so that the project’s crystal clear and they can actually see the return they’re going to get, which makes for a great customer and strategic business partnership. We also try to make sure our forecast come in under what we actually think we can produce. When we beat numbers and over-deliver, it makes the partnership even better.
Thank you for all that. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share a few of the personal and family-related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The novel coronavirus has been incredibly challenging on so many different levels. Obviously with the thought of having to lay off employees and cut my income down to near nothing, I lost sleep. It was incredibly challenging mentally, and at one point, it felt like the world was coming to an end. At that point I remembered the 2008 financial crisis: I remembered that I’ve been through something like this before. During the 2008 financial crisis, I was laid off from my job and had nothing. But I worked my way back up, launched a couple of online businesses, picked up a few clients, and eventually became a director at an agency. I remembered my story and I remembered my comeback. It came to me right when things seemed to be at their worst.
At that point, my narrative changed, and I started thinking about not only what my comeback story would be, but what the comeback story would be for everybody I knew.
This really shifted my mindset to the point where I kind of felt like I was writing my own narrative in a movie. I started thinking about how I would like to feel a year from now and what I would like my story to be when I do look back at this time. I told myself I’d like to look back and see that I handled it well with the people I love, my co-workers, our clients and with myself.
When this all started, I was eating terribly and not exercising enough. I was working 12-hour days. I stopped all that. I started doing CrossFit every single day, started running and I’ve sat down, visualized and plotted the plan for what I wanted my comeback story to be. I’ve been able to achieve the start of that, but obviously, it’s not over yet.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We had about 50% of our clients impacted financially in one way or another, and about 30% of those clients were significantly impacted. They don’t want to turn off marketing, because it’s so important for their businesses. So we ran into the dilemma of how much we could cut our bill with clients, whether we could afford to do any free work and debating how much we could support clients through this — all, of course, while dealing with how this situation impacted us and while we would experience drops in our own revenue.
Within the first two weeks, we had to renegotiate with about 30 large accounts — it felt like the sky was falling. We decided we were going to help every single client through this and be incredibly sympathetic. I can’t say everybody approached it this way. While we would reduce people’s bills or work with them, I had quite a few vendors that I work with do the exact opposite and held me to the contracts. I think we earned some good will with our clients, and I’m proud of the way that we’ve handled it.
We continue to see drops in revenue and will until we eventually hit a baseline. But we’ve been able to pivot our marketing strategy, which has allowed us to gain back some ground. We got incredibly scrappy and put in place a multi-channel approach to marketing so the business could do well during this pandemic. So, while some revenue has dropped, we also ended up having a great month in acquisitions, which almost made up for it. That being said, we still had pretty big issues with cash flow. It was literally down to the wire, and then we were saved by the Payroll Protection Program and didn’t have to let anybody go. It was pretty amazing, as we had cut as many other expenses as possible.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I’m personally not afraid of the novel coronavirus. I don’t think that the pandemic was handled correctly via shutting down the entire country. I feel like there should have been parts of the country shut down, but not the entire country. I also feel like it should have been optional to shelter at home with a heavier emphasis on the people who were the most at risk.
These decisions have had a devastating impact on so many people I know and care about.
One of the things that have helped those close to me the most is just talking about it every day, and if we disagree with the way things were handled, unifying around that message. Nobody has gone through this without fear and it’s completely natural. Outside of just discussing our views and being there for each other, the other thing that’s been very helpful has been spending more time with family. I definitely think the coronavirus in some ways has been a blessing in disguise for people to reconnect with those they love. I’ve seen my wife and kids more over the last couple of months than I ever have and that has been amazing.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the post-COVID economy will look like — but we can try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time, growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the post-COVID economy?
I see so many opportunities around this. If you weather the storm, competition will have thinned out.
One thing everybody needs to do is reassess their product market fit. They need to think about the phased approach put in place regarding going back to “normal life” as it manifests, and how their product or service may need to change on the state level to address each demographic and policy.
Consumers are going to be much more apt to buy things online, and certain industries are going to explode (online education, medical, entertainment, and gaming, to name a few). And yet, each of the industries that were impacted are going to make a nice, slow comeback. People who can put in place a reliable cost-per-acquisition-based digital strategy online are going to be able to reliably scale out of this.
The most important thing is aligning your marketing and your messaging on a granular level so that you can have the competitive advantage.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
As a digital marketing expert, I’m in a lot of big meetings. I’ll often attend Agency Day, which is usually a meeting with 3 to 5 agencies and up to 50 people. I think Agency Day might go away!
Also, in-person meetings are so important for my business. Half the time in marketing the relationship is more important than the results. It’s always kind of bothered me, because our agency gets amazing results, but some agencies do a better job of taking clients to Happy Hour — I just can’t drink that much.
My main point is people are going to get much more used to virtual. In fact, I think we’re going to see a lot of custom company virtual backgrounds and white boards. We’re going to see a lot more virtual events. I think I’m going to be flying across the country a lot less. This is going to really make a big impact on my life and allow me to be more efficient. I believe this concept is going to translate to others as well. And again, I really think we’re going to see a lot more people buying everything online.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the post-COVID economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization?
I actually sat down and looked at our company plan today for quarter one and quarter two of 2020. I was expecting to change a lot on that plan as a result of the coronavirus action plan we put together in the first couple weeks the virus impacted people. I was really surprised to see I didn’t need to change anything on that plan. I was also really surprised to see that we had accomplished way more on that plan than I thought we would have. The coronavirus actually accelerated our timeline for everything that was on that plan. It’s almost like it made us kick everything into high gear.
Now, we are pivoting in a couple of ways, but it’s more on the product/market-fit side.
First, we’re targeting new industries that are doing better (but these people are naturally coming to us because they need marketing).
Next, we’re adding complementary service lines so that we can cross-sell clients and offer more full service. Before all of this, we’ve stuck to digital marketing, but now we’re doing things such as digital strategy, creative services, and website development and design, and we’ve attracted top talent in those areas.
The main thing we’re going to be doing is keeping our foot on the gas. We believe that bigger legacy advertising agencies are at a disadvantage. We think we’ll be able to attract large accounts that no longer want to pay huge agency retainers and instead want to work with a young, scrappy, innovative and value-driven company.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
First, communicate with your customers and understand how their mindset is changing. The customer always comes first and if you listen to them, you’ll be in a perfect place.
Next, figure out how your customers’ needs have changed. What are they looking for now from your industry that they were not before?
Make sure you have a phased approach to refresh your digital marketing based on the political environment. If you’re only allowed to have 50% capacity in a business, then you need to make sure you make that clear in all of your customers messaging.
Create a page on your website that addresses how your business is responding to COVID-19. This will make it so all customers know how you were impacted and how you’re dealing with it.
Respond to the media in your niche market and become a thought leader. Become one of the people who helps people get out of this.
Get ready for a huge end of the year, and make sure you set up the perfect digital marketing strategy beforehand. You want to get reliable cost-per-acquisition metrics in place for each channel so that you can scale when all of this opens back up again in the near future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor,” said by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
How can you ever be a true expert in your field if you’re never tested? How can you ever see what you’re made out of if you’re never challenged? You have to want the battles. You have to embrace them. Obviously, nobody wants a battle like a coronavirus because it’s been detrimental to so many people. But, if you are faced with a devastating pandemic like this, you have to realize you’re going to come out stronger on the other end. If you can keep that in mind, at least you have one thing to look forward to.
How can our readers further follow your work?
If you Google “John Lincoln,” you’ll find me. I’m everywhere online. Pick your favorite platform and I look forward to seeing you there. You can start with https://ignitevisibility.com.