321: Patrick Van Gorder—Ready For The Right Data-Driven Digital Marketing Strategy To Expand Your Business?

Hear how to provide optimal customer journeys for your prospects

In this On the Brink podcast, I had an amazing conversation with Patrick Van Gorder, Executive Vice President and Partner of Level Agency. Conversations with strategic marketers is always exciting. The world we used to market in has changed. And marketing is supposed to encourage people not just to purchase but to engage with your products and services. The buyer, however, has changed their journey over the past 25 years. As we know from our own work as HubSpot Partners, the buyer’s first task when considering a solution to solve their problem is to Google it. If you don’t have a digital experience that comes up on the first pages of Google search, you’re not a good answer for that person’s problem or question. What does that mean for your business? Patrick has many great answers to that question so listen in, learn and share!

Watch and listen to our conversation here

Patrick video


Here are some statistics Patrick shared that you should consider:

  • 65% of total advertising in 2021 was online digital advertising, which is an incredible stat by itself.
  • Even more impressive is when you factor in the fact that it’s up from about 50% just a couple of years before 2019. Digital advertising has become the lion’s share of the pie and also the fastest growing segment of the pie.
  • Dollars spent in digital channels go to one of these companies: Alphabet (parent company of Google), YouTube, Meta (parent company of Facebook), Instagram or Amazon.

Interesting isn’t it?

As you consider what you are doing to grow your business, it might be time to listen in to our podcast.

Reflect on what you should be doing, and how to refocus your investments in marketing. Marketing is not an expense. It is and has always been a central part of your product design, development and promotion. Invest in it wisely and you will reap the benefits.

To contact Patrick

You can reach him on Linkedin or his website Level Agency www.level.agency.

Ready to really make your marketing work for you? Some great suggestions:

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon, I’m your host and your guide. And as you know, my great audience out there, my job is to help you get off the brink. I want you to see, feel and think in new ways so you can change. And you know that change is painful. But in these fast changing times, there are many choices. But it’s important for you to have a better understanding of things so you can do it wisely, and quickly be agile. You know, fast is the new way. Now are you going to be faster and better at what you’re doing?

I have with me today a fantastic individual whom I met through a Vistage group that I did. His name is Patrick Van Gorder. He’s Executive Vice President of Level Agency. And I want you to know that I did a podcast for them. And I enjoyed it so much. I invited him back here so we could continue the conversation. Let me tell you a little bit about what we’re going to talk about by introducing Patrick’s bio.

Patrick Van Gorder has been part of a leadership team at Level Agency since the company’s founding in 2010, which seems like yesterday, but it’s not, it’s like a moment ago. He’s made measurable significant contributions in each role he’s had, as director of campaigns and platforms, as a VP of Client Services, and now he’s Executive Vice President. But his real desire for today is to share with you the changing nature of communication, marketing, and brand building for you and your company, and for things that matter to you.

You have to understand what’s going on because the world has turned digital, if you haven’t noticed. I have a hunch you have. I bet the first thing you do when you want something is to Google it, and so it’s very interesting. He’ll tell you some major statistics. But today we’re going talk about how people buy and what the buyer’s journey is like, and why digital marketing has become so essential to your skill set, your way of viewing the world, and what Patrick can help you with. Patrick, thank you for joining me.

Patrick Van Gorder: Hey, Andi, thank you so much for having me back. I’m excited to continue the conversation.

Andi Simon: Before we get into it, though, tell our audience a little more about who’s Patrick, and the journey about why this has become so important for you.

Patrick Van Gorder: Yeah, thanks, Andi. So I am sitting here in sunny Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home of Mr. Rogers, amongst other great Pittsburgers. I am a journalism and political science graduate that got into advertising accidentally. I graduated in 2009 into the midst of the Great Recession. I had no idea what I wanted to do. And I got a call from a colleague who was writing a website that was focused on comparison shopping for higher education. And I said, Let’s go over there and let’s do some work together. And I’ve never looked back.

I’ve been with Level Agency, which is that firm, ever since 2010. My partner and I, Patrick Patterson, purchased the company from the former owner in March of 2021. So it’s been a long exciting and knowledge- and learning-filled journey for me. We’re up to about 75 people now, most of which are still in Pittsburgh, but we’ve got staff and clients all across the country.

Our focus is helping businesses both learn about what their audiences are asking for, and how to better sell their products and position their products digitally. And also ultimately, to help them sell right ultimately. It’s still true that the main function of marketing is sales or direct ROI, but the exciting thing, the thing that gets me out of bed every morning, is the reality that not only can we generate revenue, we can sell it. We can actually learn a great deal about where our customers are going, what they’re looking for, and become even more efficient and more effective tomorrow because of the advertising we’re doing today.

Andi Simon: Well, let’s talk a little bit about it because we know that the buyer’s journey has changed. And in the old world, which wasn’t that long ago, we used to buy lots of advertising, very flat, push it out. And as people will say, Oh, really, but you know, that’s sort of a past way of communicating and branding, and marketing is about storytelling. People buy your story as much as they buy the product or the package and it really matters how you communicate that and how you make it accessible to them. So let’s talk about in the world that you’re in, where all the dollars have gone to, and what’s absolutely important for a listener to understand that they should be doing as well. A little bit more about why this is so important.

Patrick Van Gorder: Absolutely. So 65% of total advertising in 2021 was online, was digital advertising, which is an incredible stat by itself. But when you factor in the fact that it’s up from about 50%, just a couple of years before 2019. That’s not only the lion’s share of the pie, but it’s also the fastest growing segment of the pie. And the really interesting thing about that concentration of dollars in digital channels is 90% of that digital span goes to one of these companies right now. It goes either to the parent company of Google, YouTube, or other properties like that. It goes to Meta, parent company of Facebook, and Instagram, or it goes to Amazon. So what that means for your listeners is, there is an incredibly complex ecosystem out there. And there are dozens, hundreds, thousands of different platforms, different ad tech intermediaries, different tools out there. But really, if you focus on the vital few, the 90%, that make up the lion’s share, you can do quite a bit. You can get quite a bit of leverage out of your spending.

And Andi, you mentioned something that I think is really interesting, and I’ve been thinking a lot about. So if you think about the ways that we thought about advertising in the past, if you’ve ever taken an advertising class, or you’re someone that has some experience in advertising, you’ve probably heard of the funnel, the advertising funnel, where you have at the very top, awareness, and down at the bottom, you’ve got direct response, and things like that. And the reality is, that comes from a moment, when, if you think about what a television ad was, there was literally no other action you could take. You just had to watch the ad, and maybe there was a phone number at the bottom that said, Hey, call this number right now. There was no way to take action, there was no way to continue the conversation.

Think about a billboard. There’s very, very little that you can do other than see and register what a billboard says. The reality in the digital space is, all of these channels are working together and allowing you to build your brand and build engagement with your brand in so many different ways all at once. So a Facebook ad is building brand awareness, but it’s also driving engagement. It’s also asking someone to fill out a form or buy a product. So it’s operating all of the steps of this classic funnel at the same time.

Andi Simon: Well, don’t leave that thought. Because as you’re thinking about communicating your story or your message, what you’d like to see happen, it isn’t bringing enormous top of mind awareness out there, it is figuring out ways to take the person who’s ready to learn more, and move them through that wonderful journey until they’re ready to purchase, taste and try. And so your whole process has been transformed to much more immediate.

I was in a group and one of the gentlemen said, People call us and they want to talk to somebody immediately. They want to listen to a doctor immediately. Instant gratification. They say, This is my time, I want to do a purchase right now. Connect me. I don’t want to learn more. It’s not slow. So how are you doing this with your clients? So my illustrative stories are case studies. Is that frustration?

Patrick Van Gorder: It’s a great question. I’ll use one of our clients that’s in the sales enablement SAS world. So, they had an experience that was very much the old school approach to what you asked people to do online, which was fill out a form, and we’ll contact you. This feels ancient because the way that the consumer perception has changed is, they’ve said, No, I will contact you when I want to talk. If you think that I’m going to subject myself to another telesales, funnels, another set of emails, you must be out of your mind. So I will contact you when I want to talk to you about sales. But in the meantime, what you can give me now is value, you can give me insight, something like a webinar or a white paper or a case study. You can help me know more about this space, learn more about your perspective and your thought leadership in this space. And then by the way, when I’m ready to talk, there’s a form there. I’ll get in touch right away. And I’ll expect to be contacted pretty quickly.

But you know, the reality is, it’s less about just being there. If you have to be there with value, you have to be there with something that the consumer cares about. Not just, Hey, give us your information and we’ll call you when we feel like it.

Andi Simon: You know, one of the things that illustrates that is, you really aren’t selling a thing, a product or your SAS story, you’re selling a relationship. And people are really buying knowledge and wisdom and experience and a much bigger product than the product they’re actually going to end up buying. And I’ve been reading a great deal about how the world is shifting from B2C, or from B2B to B4C and B4B, as if we are going to collaborate around something that you need and I can help you with. And it’s becoming very interesting to watch that mindset change. Because as you’re thinking about these clients, the customer wants you to work with them. “I’m making the right decision, not simply purchasing what I’ve got here, or being sold by somebody.” So it’s a really different buyer that you’re dealing with. They’re often younger, and sometimes not. But they also have different expectations on speed and ease. And is what you’re seeing awesome?

Patrick Van Gorder: It is, in our own world, Level Agency as a services business. We really lean in on the consultative partnership approach. And I think we’ve seen a lot of very successful organizations take that same approach where it’s not about the features, it’s about the benefits. It’s not about the services, it’s about the solutions. And that’s not to say that it needs to be completely impenetrable to understand what services and products a company actually does offer. You want to make it simple enough so that you can accommodate different types of searchers.

You might have someone that is coming to your site or coming to your physical office, and they know exactly what they want. They want a partner, or they want a general contractor-style vendor that’s going to take the blueprints from the architect and build the thing exactly as they see it. But I think in many cases what they’re really looking for is the architect and the general contractor, right? They’re saying, I have this goal. I have this business objective. And we’re coming to you to help us solve all of the problems that we’re dealing with, and trying to achieve this objective. And you tell us how we can best use this set of tools that are available to us to achieve this business objective.

Andi Simon: Well you know for us, we’re corporate anthropologists. We specialize in helping companies change. I talked about Blue Ocean Strategy, and why that’s such a great way to help companies find creating markets as opposed to competing in them. But I must say that near to your point, it doesn’t much matter if it’s cultural change or strategy change. People come with a problem, or pain points, and a challenge. And I always find the conversations are very interesting.

We have a new client coming on now. And I must tell you that the way they came to us is different than the way we’re going to serve them. What they really needed is different from what they thought they needed. And that’s just people and I guess, in some ways, the packaging of the solutions you’re offering. It’s going to require some trust that there is the right solution for the problem that they’ve identified. How does data and data analytics fit into this?

Patrick Van Gorder: Yeah, it’s a great question. You know, I think the curiosity that you’re describing is probably the single most important attribute that I find in the people in the knowledge economy in 2022. That little piece in the back of your brain that says, what’s going on here? How do I understand this data or this perspective or this product in a new and interesting way? What we find is that there is so much data that is accessible to you if you have the willingness and the knowledge of where to look.

So, if we think about it, maybe it’d be helpful to think about it in the context of a case study. So we have a new client that we’re onboarding, and we’re seeking to understand where their audience is. They’ve got some perspective on who they’d like to speak to, and where they think that those people spend their time digitally. So one of the data gathering exercises that we do is we have a deep interview conversation, kind of the classic marketing: Tell us everything that you know about where you are, who your audience is, and where they live. But in the past, I think that was kind of the end of the line. Like, you have that conversation, you build your audience profile, and that sort of becomes the audience profile that you use for a lot of your targeting efforts.

What we do is, we say, Okay, so now we’ve gathered this perspective from you. Let’s dig into the data that you have available, and validate that. What first party data do you have available? Do you have a CRM? When was the last time that you really explored? Is this an experience that you’ve had with clients as well?

Andi Simon: Of course, keep going, because the illusion of their reality is so interesting. But in fact, it’s an illusion. And as you dig into their CRM, and when did you look at it? Again, I want you to finish your thought.

Patrick Van Gorder: So look at the CRM, look at the audience that’s in there, then look at the analytics platforms that the client has to look at, Google Analytics. What can you learn about the audience, about the behavior once they come to the site, about how they get to the site? Take that curiosity and deep dive into information that maybe you’ve looked at before, and maybe you haven’t.

And the great thing about these tools is, there’s so much you know. You don’t need a developer, you don’t need an IT person to be able to understand these things. You just need to be able to watch a three minute YouTube video to say, Hey, how do I see behavior funnels in Google Analytics? Or how do I see the firmographic profiles in Salesforce or whatever those questions are. It’s all there if you’re willing to dig in and take a look. And then once you get into this, you look at the CRM, you look at the Google Analytics data, you look if there are ad platforms that are currently running.

So we would look at Google, Google ads at meta, at LinkedIn, or Bing, or Instagram, or wherever these folks are running ads. And then there’s a whole ‘nother ecosystem of audience information that you can glean from those platforms. And then that’s not even getting into the third party tools that are out there that allow you to take an outside-in perspective, but you kind of have to follow the thread.

Andi Simon: Once you do notice, that influences what you do for whom, and how does it influence the kind of communication, client advertising that we create, in order to capture those people closer to their point of purchase, or somewhere along that buyer’s journey? You know, some insights you can share?

Patrick Van Gorder: So what it does is, it arms you with a good data-supported ability to create a hypothesis, basically to say, I think that this audience of midmarket C-level people really care about the content that we have about cybersecurity or the content that we have about additive manufacturing, or whatever that content segment is. And I think that because you can see that those pages rank highly on the website. I can see that those are roles that are associated with whatever sort of the data story is that supports that.

And then with that information, you can formulate and enunciate a hypothesis for what you’re trying to do. So it could be something like, My hypothesis is that if I show this cybersecurity content, if I feature this content to this audience for the next two months, I can dramatically expand my share of leads that are coming from this program. So you write that down, you write that hypothesis down, and you execute against it. And then you measure the results. And you compare what you thought would happen versus what actually happened, and they’re very seldom exactly the same thing. But then you know what I learned from this experiment and then how do I further exploit or further take advantage of the lesson that I’ve learned from this experiment.

If you treat your marketing like these micro hypotheses, test spreads, instead of just the cost center, we’re just over here, we’re spending in advertising, because that’s what we do, you’ll be astounded by how much you can learn and how much knowledge and value and insight value that will bring to your enterprise.

Andi Simon: Do you find it at times immobilizes your clients? Because I often find that the brain is wonderful at what it knows. It’s familiar, it’s really comfortable. The habits I call are an illusion because your mind has a story. And that’s what you believe to be true, there is no truth. The only truth is there’s no truth. But that leads to that testing mindset, the curiosity quotient, the individual’s willingness to learn by doing and keep learning from there.

Are you transforming your clients to becoming learners that way? Because I find that it requires them to come in all-knowing and leave full of curiosity. And that’s fine, I’ll take that. Because unless you’re full of curiosity, you can’t get unstuck. You don’t know how to grow, you’re certain, but it’s not a working route. There is only so much we can fix until you open your mind to the possibilities. Do you find that the clients get transformed as well? Because I’m getting transformed as I listen to you.

Patrick Van Gorder: They do. They certainly do. It can be pretty inspiring to watch. We’re lucky to have an incredible set of clients. I’m sure you have the same. You have the privilege of being pretty selective with who you work with. So we start with a really high bar for the types of partners that we work with. But over time, I think we demonstrate to them a couple of things that grow their own capability in this space.

First, we are fanatical about trust driving communication, meaning, if something isn’t working, you’re going to hear about it from us first, rather than have to decipher it, and figure it out yourself. We’re very careful in our culture to make that a norm and an expectation. And then, in the context of our working, our weekly or bi-weekly or monthly coordinations, we really try to model the what-if type thinking so that we have a tool that’s our hypothesis. It’s like a database where all of our team members log their hypothesis, just like the one that I shared with you as an example.

Define what the success criteria are, and that’s often a collaborative process with the client where the client says, You know, I’ve been noticing, the folks that I’ve been talking to at conferences are now much more interested in X. What would it look like for us to do some advertising against that segment? We collaboratively develop that campaign, and we learn from it. We run the test, and we learn from it, and instead of, Oh, well, it happens and if it doesn’t work as well as we hoped, we kind of just move on. We don’t really talk about it. We spend more time talking about what we learn when it doesn’t perform as we expect it to than we talk about the thing that goes exactly as planned.

So I think over time we build that trust in that relationship where we become a curiosity engine. An extension, if you think about what marketing is, it’s the interface between the public and the business. It’s where most of your posts, first interactions with prospective non-current clients are, and that’s such a privileged position to be in. But I think we often forget that so much of the privilege there is in the knowledge, not just in the opportunity to make a first impression or make a sale. It’s also about what we can learn.

Andi Simon: Because we’re coming out of the pandemic, assuming we’re coming out of it, did you notice dramatic or important changes during that period that listeners should be paying attention to? And my hunch is that your curiosity opened up a whole lot of interesting learnings. Are there any that you can share?

Patrick Van Gorder: Yes, we saw a decade of change in a couple of years in terms of acceleration. What that meant, in practical terms, is that the trend toward digital advertising accelerated the trend from platforms like linear television to streaming to OTT to connected TV. Those trends accelerated. People spend more time online than ever before. And, for a while we were the only game in town when it came to marketing. As we open up, and I share your optimism that hopefully the changes are here to stay, but as we open up, there’s a reality that there’s a hunger for personal connection. There’s a hunger for some of the things that brands have forgone: travel, face to face sales and things like that. But the genie is not going back in the bottle as it relates to the collaborative collaboration at a distance.

I think marketing at its best in 2022 is collaboration at a distance. It’s this world where we’re having real discussions and dialogues with people even though we’re not face to face, or in the same meeting together. So I think to answer your question directly, Andi, the bottom line is, the space accelerated dramatically. The trends accelerated dramatically. And the brands that have not yet sort of shifted, if your budget looks anything like 65% of your spend is not in digital, that probably means that you’re behind the optimal budget allocation.

Andi Simon: It’s interesting, MacLeod had a great podcast on purpose-driven selling. But in some ways, it’s not that different from purpose-driven marketing. The people who have a purpose sold better than those who didn’t. And in your digital marketing, in a sense, you need to have a good clear purpose. What is it I’m trying to do, for whom and how, as opposed to, I have a product and I want to sell it. It becomes a bigger conversation in that process so that you get the right message to the right person when they’re looking for you, as opposed to when you want to get it out there in sort of a vacuum, hoping it’s the right time and digital it to do things that you can’t do in person, like at 2am. It’s just an interesting time. You know, as I look at our clock, and we’re about ready to wrap up, my head is full of things I don’t want the listener to forget, but I bet yours is as well. Patrick, some things that you want to leave them with.

Patrick Van Gorder: Yeah, I really liked the model that you just constructed, Andi, of marketing as the opportunity to have a discussion with someone at 2am, on their timeline and on their schedule. What I would say is one thing that I think is an important thing for brands to understand is, there are not in the majority of cases, it’s not just one interaction at 2am, or 2pm, or whenever, it’s a series of exposures, it’s a series of conversations that allow brands to unfold that value proposition and that purpose to their prospective clients over time. So, there’s not a single one in most cases. As tempting as it is to point to a single moment of truth, what Google calls the zero moment of truth, the Zima. The reality is that there are all of these influencing factors that sort of happened before that moment of truth, that are critical to the journey.

So what I encourage brands to think about is, What are some of those optimal customer journeys? And how can you provide value and insight and knowledge to prospects at every step of that journey? The other thing that’s a big conversational piece in our space right now is the conversation around privacy. There is a major trend toward less, less of a surveillance state online. There’s parts of that that are regulatory, if you look at what’s happened in Europe and you look at the California legislation. That is half of it. And the other half is being driven by platforms themselves. Apple has made a real play toward being an agent of privacy for their users. And you also have things like the cookie, the third party cookie, that are being proactively devalued by Google now, in advance of a recognition that those things are not going to be viable in the future.

So, I think what that means is, there’s a recognition that the promise of total accountability was always sort of a pipe dream. There were a lot of people that looked like me over the last 20 years that have sold this promise of full attribution, how you know exactly the value that every dollar that you spend is bringing back. And the reality is that, in this more fragmented privacy ecosystem, it’s just clear that it’s never going to be as clean and as neat as people want it to be. Because the reality is, Andi, if somebody listens to both of our podcasts, the podcast that you did for us and the podcast that we’re doing here, and then they reach out to you, and they buy a book, what percentage of that book purchase was driven by seeing On the Brink behind you? Now, we’re seeing On the Brink behind you in the earlier podcast. There’s no right answer to that. So, I think, be wary of companies that overpromise as it comes to trackability, but at the same time, there’s so much that you can learn and that you can measure and that you can know. There are really viable attribution models that you can build, but you have to go into it with an understanding that this is representative rather than completely.

Andi Simon: Well, you know, there is no certainty. So I agree with you, humans just keep searching for it. And I like the fact that we’re searching for it because maybe it’ll make fewer mistakes in the process. But it’s complicated. The buyer is complicated. There are different parts. And when they buy what they thought they bought isn’t necessarily what you thought you were selling them and how they use it. How many times have I gone into the field with my clients, and observed how customers were using their products inappropriately? Well, why is it inappropriate if you’re using it? That’s not what it was supposed to be for.

I had one friend who had an AI and software developing company, he fired the managers. And he had to get the engineers closer to the customer because the engineers were certain that the customer was stupid. And I was laughing. I said, The stupid customer syndrome, right? You build something brilliant and the customer just doesn’t get it. But it’s a really complicated world today because it’s so complicated. The choices are so many, and everybody influences what comes up first on Amazon or in Google and what page you’re on.

Did you know I work hard to do organic search so I’m on the first page of Google for corporate anthropologist, or cultural changee expert. I can make only the second page for Blue Ocean Strategy expert. But you know, all of our stuff is content designed to help you buy the right thing in the right way. And that’s what you’re doing too. If they want to reach you, Patrick, how can they do that best? We’ll certainly have it on our podcast blog, but can you please share it for them.

Patrick Van Gorder: Visit us at Level Agency. You can just type www.level.agency into your search bar and there’s a Contact Us option there. There’s a lot of great content. Like I previewed earlier, you can check out our podcast. Test.Learn.Grow is the name of our podcast. You can get it wherever you get podcasts, and check out the episode that we did with Andi previously. It was a really, really good conversation.

Andi Simon: Well, you know, Patrick and I share the same joy and help people do things that are challenging for them. And our conversation was about howBlue Ocean Strategy creates markets. This one is about how do you stop wondering how to sell or market your product and do it, because the only way you will learn is to be curious to test, make few assumptions, just a little one assumption is, I need Patrick to help me make the right decisions and test them all so I can see what’s actually happening. But the world is going digital to a degree that you should be as well. And I don’t care if you’re a solopreneur, or a small business or a growing entrepreneur or a mid-market client, like we have so many. People are going to buy you remotely, they’re going to buy you online, they’re going to buy you by what they see. Actually people download white papers and yellow mark them when I meet with them. It’s sort of like, are you real? It comes through, all that stuff. Patrick, it has been such fun. We can talk for a long time. Thank you so much for today.

Patrick Van Gorder: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time. And I look forward to hearing what’s next for Dr. Simon.

Andi Simon: Let me just wrap up for my audience. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you coming. You have made us one of the top 5% of podcasts globally, which I think is fantastic. Bring along friends, send me your ideas. Patrick came to me through something I did. We show up a lot. And that’s how we market ourselves. We show up a lot. And things that come our way.

On The Brink is here to help you see, feel and think in new ways. Both of my books have won awards, so I’ll promote them a little bit.On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights is how a little anthropology can help your business grow, and Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business was just awarded our second bronze Best Book Award for 2022 from Axiom for women in business as a category. And I do think that this is a time to rethink when you’re on the brink. I like my titles, so you can begin to see things through a fresh lens. That’s my job as an anthropologist, to help you step back, look at things, and begin to understand the changes that are happening. Because fast is going to be the new and you have to really be agile, adapt and begin to make things happen for you. So thank you for joining us today. Thank you, Patrick Van Gorder for being here. We’ll post this and you guys can share it, and it’s just a pleasure. Thanks again. Remember, reach me at info@andisimon.com and I’ll be here for you. Bye bye now. Have a great day. Bye bye. Thanks.