Hamlet Batista sits down with Jeff Coyle, Co-founder and Chief Product Officer of MarketMuse, to discuss how to build a personal brand with the help of content and community engagement. What follows is a partial transcript of their discussion.
- The role content plays in building a following
- Keys to building an engaged audience
- Takeaways to apply to your own brand
- Benefits of learning Python for your content strategy
Coyle: “What has your journey of not being on the speaking circuit to now being booked out a year ahead been like? How have you been handling this transition?”
Batista: “It’s been an incredible, crazy journey. The catalyst for my transition started when I was working behind the scenes in an implementation of a merchant account for our software. Once we applied, we were rejected by Paypal due to being what they deemed, a ‘high-risk category.’ They categorized SEOs in the same bucket as scammers.
After this grand investment of time and money, I was embarrassed and frustrated. My options were to give up and change careers or do something about it.
A year before, Paul Shapiro invited me to do a talk about Python, which turned out to be very popular. As an introvert, speaking was not something I particularly enjoyed, but what really enabled me to go out and do these talks was my passion for writing code. I figured I could connect these two things to teach a new generation of SEOs and data scientists so that they could improve their reputation. By giving them these tools, they would avoid problems similar to the one I faced with opening a merchant account as an SEO.
I quickly realized that the few hundred followers I had at the time may not give me the exposure I needed to put this idea in motion. I Googled, ‘How to start a movement,’ and came across a TedTalk by Derek Sivers. This powerful, five-minute video gave me the insight I needed to cultivate a community.
It taught me that if I can get just one person to follow my lead, I can get everyone to do so too. Within just two weeks, the first person reached out to me saying I had inspired them to learn Python. I blasted this all over my social media and continued to apply what I had learned from the video to build a movement.
I still use this concept today by writing code, sharing it, and highlighting those in the community who take the time to learn from my ideas.”
Coyle: “You mentioned the original plan was focused around starting a movement. How did you decide what to put out there in terms of materials and content formats?”
Batista: “When I started, I said, ‘I need to get my name out there,’ but I didn’t enjoy the writing and speaking that went along with that. What I did enjoy doing was writing code.
However, with my business, I don’t touch our products. I would love to be writing code, but I don’t trust myself to write production code, so I have a specialized team who is responsible for that.
I was still looking for a way to incorporate this passion of mine back into my life. Initially, when I started to write code for these talks and presentations, it was an escape. I quickly realized that my increased visibility would also benefit my business. After my first Python article on Search Engine Journal reached 20,000 views, they offered me the opportunity to write a regular column.
The way that I chose topics was by choosing things that I genuinely wanted to learn about. I always thought I didn’t have the time to do this, but now I had an excuse to discover something new with code. The excitement that this brought me acted as self-motivation for me to write about it and share it.
This gives me a content plan that works for me. There are new things happening and being released at all times and now I have an excuse to play around, test them, and learn from them. After that, I do a writeup and share my findings. If I can learn something new with all my years of experience, I’m sure others can too.
The main benefit is that I’m learning something new that I can apply to my business. The second thing is that when I share these insights, I can use the engagement to see which ideas are more powerful. There have been multiple times where I shared an idea I thought was good, and someone from the community took it a step further to make it even better. I can then use that to deliver something better in my product.”
Coyle: “When you know you’re going to share the output, does it cause you to code or plan differently?”
Batista: “Not necessarily. One of the things I needed to learn in the SaaS business is how much to share, how much to keep internally, and knowing what to keep as your competitive advantage.
The technology aspect, typically the competitive advantage, has been blurred due to the speed of how fast things are evolving. The best ideas have a very limited time span. The community we have built is a stronger competitive advantage. The trust that you build around a community that wants to work with you, not because you have a secret, but because you are constantly improving and innovating at a faster pace is much stronger.
Another thing to consider is that in many cases, experience supersedes knowledge. Take a surgeon for example. If he writes a book with everything he knows and you read it, you still will not be as capable as him. People will not trust you to perform surgery on them because although you may be knowledgeable, you have no experience. The practical experience is invaluable.”
Coyle: “How do you get people who feel they are behind the curve to contribute and participate in the community?”
Batista: “The way to do that is by pointing out people similar to them who have already crossed the line. Take Ruth Everett for example. I did a webinar with her showing practical applications of Python which led her to pursue and learn it via DeepCrawl.
When I do a webinar, I always show the outcome first. I often use a weight loss analogy.
No one is going to tell you that weight loss is beautiful. No one shows you the sweat or the hard work; they show you the outcome—their transformed bodies. They do that to show you that it is possible.
I do the same things when I present a webinar. I begin by first showing what is possible with Python with an accessible use case. Then, I show the simple steps it will take to get there. This motivates people to think, “Wow, maybe I really can do this.”
You only need one person to get the ball rolling. The first person to go on the learning journey serves as inspiration for the rest of the community.
With this approach, I’ve seen the best come out of people. Many underestimate their capabilities, marketers especially. They often fear coding. But when I show them an example of someone who started out just like them and went on to learn Python, they become inspired.
I use this strategy in my articles. At the end of each one, I include a section where I showcase current community projects that are in the works. Before I publish each article, I make a call on Twitter and ask people to share a cool project they’re working on. In return, they get a shoutout and increased visibility in the community.”
Coyle: “What advice would you give to someone who wants to create a similar movement for their personal brand?”
Batista: “Find a bigger story than you fit into. A lot of times as marketers, you’re pushing to get attention to your business.
Picture a boat race. You have a little boat, trying to push your business to get attention. Then there’s another boat, who is able to move forward with less effort and make faster progress just by taking advantage of their winds. That’s the key.
Find waves in your business that are already happening. Look for a current trend to connect your business to create an emotional connection. These movements have a social-economic impact that you can align with.
Everyone is in business to make money and trade goods/services, but when you create a greater purpose for your business, you create more value.
Take e-commerce for example. Some stores are starting to use recycled debris from the ocean as a cleanup project.
There are many ways you can tap into existing movements to propel you faster than you could on your own.
For my own business, I saw the opportunity in the data science and AI movement. Python is growing like crazy. I knew it would inevitably reach my community and I wanted to be the first one to introduce it.
The idea is to find a movement that is already happening and create an emotional tie. The emotional connection I created was with marketers, who often are technophobic. There’s a reason why people aren’t teaching marketers code—it’s out of their comfort zone. But if I can show them the outcome of utilizing Python and the difference it can make in their work, I may turn some heads. You won’t convert everyone, but if you can get enough people to hop on the bandwagon, you can create enough noise.”
Coyle: “I think, naturally, being in a larger business, you may default to manual, repetitive tasks without realizing there’s a better way. How severe is the pain you’re solving?”
Batista: “That’s exactly why it wasn’t very hard of a pitch. There was already an underlying pain that marketers didn’t even know existed.
I frequently have people who try out the code I share in my articles in their own work. They get excited because they’re able to find better ways to accomplish mundane tasks. They then share their new findings on their Twitter where I retweet them.
By resharing their work on my own platforms, I’m empowering and pushing people to do their best—I am betting on the new generation of this industry. The praise they receive for their accomplishment creates a compounding effect. These people also become your ambassador in a way by sharing your movement via word of mouth. That’s how I’ve gotten more speaking opportunities. People get inspired by my work, share it, and vouch for me in the industry. It’s a virtuous cycle.”
Coyle: “The ecosystem around Python makes it very special right now. What’re your thoughts on why Python and why now?”
Batista: “I think it’s more of a UX thing. With my engineering background, I have programmed in a lot of different languages, but I’ve always been drawn to Python. I had to ask myself, ‘Why?’
A lot of languages are difficult to read. When I would write in Perl, for example, it never stuck with me. I would always have to look up the basics whenever doing a project with it.
With Python, I can understand it immediately—it was designed to be readable. A lot of languages require comments to understand what is being done. Python doesn’t require them because the code itself acts as comments, with a few exceptions here and there. Also, the spacing, although frustrating at times, forces you to write in a clear format that is easy to read.”
Coyle: “For the specific use of SEO, Technical SEO, and NLP, what are your top tools?
Batista: “In terms of practical applications, it would be Uber. My favorite and simplest one is called Ludwig. You can provide an input from a CSV file then specify what you want to be accomplished (classification, image caption, etc). A task that would typically require an expert deep learning programmer can be done with this application. Ludwig will code the input in the right format, split the data sets, and complete a cross-validation. In the end, you get a model that you can use to make predictions.
It’s incredibly fast because it allows you to do advanced deep learning at scale without needing to write code. There are many powerful applications of Ludwig that I have shown in my articles on Search Engine Journal.
I wrote one on Automating Intent Classification. Done manually, the process can be very time-consuming. Taking thousands or even millions of keywords and grouping them into the right buckets based on intention can take weeks. In my article, I show how to shorten this process down to minutes using deep learning and share the code to get it done.
Another favorite library of mine is Transformers. This one accomplishes similar but more advanced tasks in deep learning. It requires a bit more code and knowledge but is still much simpler than writing TensorFlow or PyTorch code.
Another tool I enjoy is Pandas, which I like to call ‘Excel on steroids.’
Content markers often tell me that they don’t see a need to learn to code because they can just hire a developer to do it instead.
Here’s the thing—we’re all trying to break out and get attention. The good news is that there is so much data and information out there, that your idea is definitely attainable. The bad news is that if you hire a developer to find your idea, they don’t have the context to be able to source it.
Here’s the reason. As an engineer, the first thing you’re taught is to remove the context. An engineer’s job is to generalize formulas, algorithms, etc.
As a marketer, you need to connect emotionally with your target audience. The context is the most important thing to create a relevant and personalized message.
That’s why when you hire an engineer, they will not be able to make that personalized connection that is essential since they don’t have the context.
When you’re a marketer and learn a bit of code, you begin to ask the right questions. You’ll be able to find something powerful and unique to capitalize on and bring into the market that will put you in the spotlight.”
Coyle: “What are some other interesting projects that you have seen connecting content and SEO in the community?”
Batista: “The work that the community is doing is incredible. JR Oakes from Locomotive has done some amazing work. He published an article on Search Engine Land on ‘Using the Apriori algorithm to visualize change in search console rankings. Not only does he share the code, but it has also been translated into other languages by Vincent Terrasi from OnCrawl.
Another interesting project has been generating meta descriptions using abstractive summarization, which I wrote an article on SEJ using BERT. Andrea Volpini took the same concept and accomplished the project using the Transformers library.
Pythia, released by Facebook, uses computer vision to caption images that lack alt text or descriptions. I detail how to use this project in this article.
There’s also a site, Papers with Code, where you can keep track of the latest, state-of-the-art code that you can clone and adapt to your own applications. People who write code for this site are academics who don’t know the business value of their work. By applying your own context, you can find valuable solutions to your problems.”
Coyle: “How have you used these resources to generate leads for RankSense?”
Batista: “We primarily generate leads through our partnerships and through the free offering of our software. My writing and speaking engagements also help to bring in some quality leads.
I wouldn’t say that our primary focus is lead generation. Instead, we are looking to build trust that will lead to valuable partnerships. People want to partner with someone they trust and will make them look good to their audience. This is more of a long-term play to build our reputation.
Related to that, the biggest take away I’ve learned from doing this for a year is that consistency is underrated.
Writing content, for example, on a consistent basis builds up over time.
Consistency is powerful because you’re training people to expect great things from you. This pushes you to get better each time and cultivates a community where people are excited to learn from you.
Delivering exceptional content time and time again with a consistent theme will allow you to create a synchronized audience that will benefit you. Also, it eliminates the risk for publishers and conference organizers when they’re deciding if they should feature you.
Your consistency assures them that you will deliver something valuable.”
To hear more about this discussion, watch the full webinar with Hamlet Batista and Jeff Coyle on MarketMuse.