From Slug Harvester to Paid Search Pro: Matt Van Wagner, An Interview

Matt Van Wager, president and founder of Nashua-based paid search engine marketing agency Find Me Faster, is a venerable, well-respected, award-winning speaker and valued member of the online marketing community. He’s also straight-up freakin’ hilarious. When Matt walks in the room, you can’t help but notice. He’s equal parts smarts and snark, and his conference antics presentations seem to mirror that endearing formula, called by some: “as entertaining as they are informative.”

Attendees at next week’s Search Engine Strategies New York will get a chance to experience this refreshing combo for themselves, when Matt tackles two heavyweight topics,  Search Competitive Analysis and Advanced Paid Search Tactics, both set to take place on on Day 1 of the event. Prior to the show, AIMCLEAR shared a virtual fireside chat with Mr. Van Wagner, to get sneak peeks at his upcoming presentations and an insider’s look at the New Hampshirite, from humble beginnings as a slug farmer to life as a paid search powerhouse. Interest piqued? Of course it is. So go ahead, read on.

| AIMCLEAR: You’re in the hot seat! Tell us a bit about yourself. Can we get an insider look at the transition from whatever you were doing prior (professionally), to your career as an online marketer? Was there ever a time you doubted the choice?

Matt Van Wagner: The first business I ever started, when I was twelve, was harvesting garden slugs for brain research at Princeton University. They were paying $25 per pound for these slimy little creatures that were all over my backyard at night and I thought it was like printing money to start this business. I harvested a few dozen the first night, put them in a jar with some grass, and dirt, punched some holes in the lid, and then put them in an old fridge in our basement. I went to sleep dreaming of the riches that would soon be coming my way. Next day, however, I discovered that the slugs had no problem escaping the jar, and tucked themselves into the deepest recesses of the fridge, never to be found again.  A few days later, the fridge stunk to high heaven and was put out on the curb. Business closed.

Since then, I’ve enjoyed a much more productive career as a sales and marketing manager for all sorts of technology companies, and once I discovered the power of internet advertising, I left that all behind to start my own PPC advertising agency in 2002.  Never looked back – never had so much fun!

| aC: Okay, that’s one of the best answers a question like that could ever hope for. Onto Q2: You do a lot of work behind the scenes, planning sessions, speaking ,etc… What’s your motivation? Do you get clients from speaking at conferences? Is it satisfying work?

MVW: What I like most about speaking is that it forces me out of the routine of work I am doing, and makes me think about larger issues with greater depth. When you are always focused on the next item in your PPC account optimization to-do list, you don’t give yourself the chance to stop and think about what you are doing and how you are doing it. Planning out a session, either as a speaker or as a moderator, or both, forces me to step outside my routines, consider new ideas, new processes and new tools. It is always an enjoyable and very valuable exercise.

I also really like being able to brainstorm new sessions with colleagues and to learn from their expertise and different experiences. There is nothing more satisfying than to be on a panel with 2-3 leading experts, each building on the other’s topics, and then having a great audience Q&A time to follow, where the entire audience is engaged, asking tough questions of the speakers and having a lively back and forth. I’ve learned amazing things and am always so glad to be asked to be part of the process of putting it altogether.

| aC: Very cool. What advice would you give a search marketer wanting to get into display advertising? Would you advise using Facebook or LinkedIn?

MVW: First, if you are not doing it now – what are you waiting for?!?

Display ads, whether (text, image and video-based) can do things that search ads can not and reach people before they’ve started searching for things and during those times when they are actively looking for things to buy. Display ads can actually drive demand for new products – which is almost impossible to do with search alone. Search ads are demand fulfillment. Display ads can drive new demand!

Google, especially, has driven the online contextual advertising marketplace towards greater relevance and accountability, using lessons hard learned in their early days of AdSense. Every day, there are more and better ways to reach your targeted audiences.

The days of stupid flashing banner ads that had nothing to do with anything are fast disappearing. Any advertiser not taking advantage of display advertising is missing huge opportunities!

Facebook and LinkedIn are also good places to reach new customers, but they are very different than most contextual advertising sites, in my opinion. Here’s the difference: When people are visiting information-based sites on the Internet, display ads are effective because they are a form of information.

Facebook, especially, is used much more for social interaction, not for information gathering in the same way. You are hanging out, looking at postings from friends and family, pictures, videos and playing games. Ads in this context are not part of the conversation – they are a necessary ‘evil’ that allows Facebook to be free of charge. Ads that are for social products have a good chance to attract attention. Ads for things of a highly personal nature like hemorrhoid crème or industrial products like bearings, screws, and nuts are not likely to do as well.

The same is true for LinkedIn, I suppose. For most of our clients, we suggest a quiet, respectful presence that incorporates your logo and branding images is the best way to go.

| aC: Great stuff. Your interviewer is curious about the work you do as a contributing courseware developer for the SEMPO Institute. Enlighten me, enlighten the world!

MVW: I love organizations like SEMPO that promote the advancement of search marketing in the general field of advertising and marketing. Back in 2006, Dana Todd and I wrote the 12 segment certification course called Online Paid Advertising (PPC) and then in 2009, I wrote a special course focusing on theory and case studies in ROAS centered around adCenter. Haven’t done any course development lately, but have kept my hand in training of PPC professionals by serving as tech editor for search industry books by Brad Geddes, Andrew Goodman, Joe Kerschbaum and David Szetela, and Ron Jones. This market changes so quickly – it is hard to keep up with the pace of advances!

| aC: Your top five favorite online marketing speakers, and why– GO!

MVW: First on my list is someone you may not have heard of, but should, Joseph Carrabis, of NextStage Analytics. Google him and read everything and anything he talks about. There are so many other online marketing folks I like to hear – there’s no way I can list just five. I really dig just about everyone on this online marketing space – for the special gifts and talents they bring. So, I am going to completely duck this question and say I have 100 favorites.

| aC: You’ll hit the ground running on Day 1 of SES NY, speaking on Search Competitive Analysis and Advanced Paid Search Tactics (not to mention moderating Analytics for Paid Search) Do you have an absolute favorite topic to discuss in front of an audience? Can we get a mini sneak peek at the main takeaways or teachings of your upcoming presentations?

MVW: I love talking about anything related to paid search, but these two sessions are really favorites of mine.

Who doesn’t like analyzing competitors, scouting them to know their every move, and then to know them so well, that you can predict what they will do next? It’s exactly what sports teams do before they take on a new opponent. What could be more fun than to predict what a competitor will do before they do it, and be ready with your counter moves to keep your advantage?! There are always interesting things you can learn from CI, and in this session look for allegations of scandalous boardroom love affairs!

In the Advanced Paid Search Tactics, I will be touching on the changes to AdWords-adCenter cross-account strategies based on recent changes by both platforms. I’ll also add a little discussion on how to stomp out stupid ad syndrome by making sure  your DKI ads work correctly.

| aC: Exciting stuff. I’m checking out the Competitive Intel’ session for sure (at least!). Now, onto the important stuff: Favorite adult beverage of choice and why!

MVW: Favorite beverages, you mean. Pre-dinner vodka gimlet or dirty martini are my cocktails of  preference. Give me a nice glass of red wine with my meal.  After 10 pm a nice whiskey (neat please) Bourbon, Irish or Scotch is the way to end a day.

| aC: Well played, Mr. Van Wagner. Well played indeed. Thanks so much for your time today and thoughtful responses. This was quite a treat. Safe travels down to the Big Apple, we’ll be seein’ ya there!

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