While the internet is a fantastic avenue for reaching and connecting customers, its benefits can’t be seen when you take a hands-off approach. When it comes to digital marketing, as Tripp Donnelly, founder and CEO of REQ explains: if you’re not in control of your online narrative, someone else is.
ABERMAN: Tell me: what is digital marketing? Why is the D.C. region a particularly great place to do it?
DONNELLY: Well, digital marketing combines a lot of different technologies and tradecrafts in it. The basics around it are to define, connect, and protect brands online. The way that the average consumer, customer, stakeholder, legislator, especially in the D.C. area, sees something online, and how they connect. They shape purchasing decisions, make travel decisions, and they get to know brands and companies through that window of the of the Internet.
ABERMAN: And I would think that that is really hard to do right now, in the wild west of social media, isn’t it?
DONNELLY: It is, but I guess take a step back. I’m a veteran of this, or perhaps a victim of it, of nearly 20 years. I’ve grown up since the late 90s in this space, and I’ve seen the landscape transform a lot. I don’t know if you remember, Jonathan, but of course when I started this business, there were nearly 20 search engines. Now today, there’s three, but there’s more commonly known as one: Google, of course. So, this landscape has a life cycle that changes every two or three years. And our business is not only to know what we’re supposed to deliver to customers, but to actually stay ahead of the game, to understand what is over the horizon, what the next platform is.
ABERMAN: I think it makes a lot of sense, and I also do agree with you that these days, we see time and again, a business that isn’t proactively looking at its digital footprint is going to wake up one day and be subjected to some really bad stuff. It’s amazing how fast it all moves. So, clearly there’s a market for this nationally. How does it differ here from, say, New York, or Chicago, or L.A., or elsewhere?
DONNELLY: In this regard, especially in the D.C. region, which is so government-, so politically-focused, of course, the first half of our life as REQ was focused on serving big brands, Fortune 100 brands, that were outside the Beltway. What we began to find is that a good part of the political landscape, the member associations, trade groups, and so on, they were trying to advocate and be thought leaders for very specific issue sets towards Capitol Hill, towards the White House, towards regulatory bodies.
We’re using very traditional, dare I say antiquated, methods to try and connect with advocates outside the Beltway to articulate their message inside the Beltway. And a good part of our business grew rapidly inside the Beltway, delivering technologies that connected to people. Was using social media, was using Twitter, was using search engines, to connect to people to make sure that they took civic action, and how they could connect to their member of Congress, how they could connect to the White House. And we had seen where we married a lot of traditional technologies, along with some very innovative solutions sets in the digital marketing world. And we have grown, actually, to have that be the fastest growing segment of our business.
ABERMAN: When I cover innovation here on the show, and elsewhere in the columns, you know, there’s no doubt that social networking, and just the media generally, has just changed how we communicate. I think we face a real interesting challenge right now, because it’s become so democratized, and so chaotic, but ultimately so important. Your business, to my mind, sounds a lot more like a tech business than a consulting business. Is that the right way to look at it?
DONNELLY: Absolutely, absolutely. If you look at basically the composition of our staff, you’ll find half of them are technologists that have come from technology companies, have come from the social media platforms, have come from search engines. The other half are strategists, where they marry this art and science. Because through, as I shared, the window of the Internet, or a Google Toolbar, or through Facebook, or Twitter, on how people consume their information today.
And it’s a very opportunity rich environment. At the same token, it’s very dangerous environment, as we’ve seen. We’ve seen this emergence of fake news, intentional and unintentional. How do brands, or companies, or these trade groups, those in D.C., trade associations, define themselves, between the intentional and unintentional fake and real news?
ABERMAN: And then there’s the whole issue, frankly, about whose reality it is. I’ve been involved in the Internet from the beginning, from somewhere slightly past when Al Gore invented it, but not long after, and it’s never been more complex. But it’s never been more necessary to have these technologies and strategies. Which leads me to ask: you just merged with SpeakerBox Communications, one of our leading regional PR firms. How does that relate to REQ? Why did you guys decide to combine businesses?
DONNELLY: Well, we had known Elizabeth and the SpeakerBox team for years. We followed them, we shared a handful of clients with them, and then their reputation, of course, is known throughout this region and beyond. There was a common DNA to us. They had served so many big brands, and emerging brands in the technology landscape, and what I’d shared earlier is there’s very much a convergence, an intersection between this traditional and non-traditional.
We’re finding that the quality of content required online very much speaks to earned media, solid public relations, and that thought leadership that SpeakerBox has won awards on, for many years. So, there was a natural progression both in the technology landscape, combined with what we purposefully wanted to do in combining these great, you know, this tradecraft.
ABERMAN:makes a lot of sense to me, I can understand why you did it. If I’m a CEO, I’m listening to this broadcast, and I’m thinking to myself: this is interesting, but ultimately, how do I know if I’m on top of my digital marketing game?
DONNELLY: It’s one of those things that, at a minimum, and it’s surprising, but we still have conversations where we’ll say to a certain prospective client, or even a current client: what are you doing to focus on your search engine reputation, and or, your social media presence? How engaged are you in both listening and engaging that consumer base or population online? We still hear ‘not much.’ This is not something you ‘should’ do. It’s something you must do. It’s compulsory, in today’s marketing landscape. So, if this is not part of your marketing stack, if this is not part of your advocacy stack, then you are not doing something right.
ABERMAN: So in effect, if I am a CEO of a business, and people are talking about my business in a way other than the way I want them to, that means I’m not on top of my digital marketing game?
DONNELLY: Exactly. Now, I’ve said this for for many years now, it’s something that we believed early on at REQ, that’s something that is the truth today. By every measure of analytics, and things that even Google will share with you. And that is, people will go online, and they trust what they see online. And that’s a very powerful word, because a lot of platforms, including Google and Facebook and others, don’t have an editorial authority.
So we, as humans, for many years, go to the front page of The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal. We tend to trust and believe the information that’s provided to us. And people have that same level of trust, but if you aren’t defined by yourself in those top 10 rankings of Google, your reputation, or the ability to connect to customers or legislators, will be defined for you.
ABERMAN: Lesson learned. You are who you say you are, unless you don’t say who you are.
DONNELLY: Correct. Absolutely.
ABERMAN: Well, Tripp, congratulations on your merger with SpeakerBox. We look forward to hearing more about that in the future. That was Tripp Donnelly, CEO of REQ.