Dec 17, 2020
John Kriney, is Founder and President at OptFirst Internet Marketing, a Google Certified Partner (2010) that specializes in full-service online marketing campaigns and website, app, and landing page development. Campaign expertise includes customized search engine optimization; Google Ads search, video, display and shopping campaigns; cross-platform remarketing; E-commerce marketing; Facebook and Instagram ads for lead generation, sales, or brand building purposes; LinkedIn ads; and combinations of all of that.
In 2003-2004, John started selling after-market auto customization products in Los Angeles, CA; ranked his business first in searches for body kits and parts, and generated up to $3.5 million a year in sales. As things slowed in 2006, John sold that business. What to do next?
Seeing his success, six business owners he had worked with requested his help with their online marketing. In 2008, John moved his business to South Florida, named it OptFirst, and provided his clients with profitable conversions. He made sure they knew how much much money they were making per campaign, per campaign type to ensure long-lasting relationships. When companies wanted to focus on branding, he demanded that both the target and the success be quantified.
He admits there are three types of competitors that may steal his customers: the one-off internet whiz kid who is someone’s nephew, vertical internet marketing agencies that draw customers away by speaking the “right jargon,” and the traditional marketing agency that’s trying to tack on digital as a service. “Lost” clients often return – a tribute to his agency’s collaborative approach of “one business owner working with another.”
OptFirst was one of the first early adopters of LinkedIn direct conversion campaigns and has been running campaigns for the University of Miami’s Continuing Education Department, marketing 22 different programs on that platform for over 4 years. Because OptFirst’s efforts with the University of Miami outperformed all other universities by 90%, LinkedIn took John and a University of Miami representative to lunch. They had proved a profitable campaign could be run on LinkedIn.
John believes you need 3 channels of incoming advertising for any business . . . so they also run SEO campaigns, Google Ads, and paid social for the University. In total, the agency offers 11 different campaign types, of which SEO has the lowest CPA.
John has written 3 books on search engine optimization and internet marketing. He thought he would hand his 8-step SEO plan to clients and lose business because clients would now know what needed to be done. Providing that knowledge was “the right thing to do.” But it didn’t work that way. The 8-step book made him the “expert” for work clients did not want to do. They would thumb through the book and immediately sign his proposal.
Since the pandemic, John created “the seven steps of becoming an author” and has guided half a dozen business owners to getting published. He says “There’s no better way to control your Google presence than . . . becoming an author. When you put a book out on Amazon, there’s a knowledge panel to be claimed as an author on Google, and then you really control your first page.”
John says his “slogan” for the times is: “2020 is survive, and if you make it to 2021, then you can thrive.” He can be reached on his agency’s website at: OptFirst.com, at John Kriney on LinkedIn, and by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by John Kriney, Founder and President of OptFirst Internet Marketing based in Miami, Florida. Welcome to the podcast, John.
JOHN: Rob, thanks for having me on the show. I really appreciate it.
ROB: Excellent to have you here. We were just chatting before the start – this is being recorded the day after the votes were cast in the election, but we don’t know what’s going on. But that’s not why we’re here. We are here to talk about OptFirst Internet Marketing. John, why don’t you start off by telling us about OptFirst and where the firm excels?
JOHN: A little background on where we excel – and I think the backstory really paints the picture of our approach to how we work with clients and what our core strategy is. I started OptFirst after I sold a business, BodyKits.com. That was based in San Diego, California. If you can remember the “Fast and Furious” days where we had spoilers and bumpers and everyone wanted to make their Honda Civic look like a Lamborghini – remember those days?
ROB: Oh yeah.
JOHN: I really got onto that trend. This had a huge demand. All the product was coming into port in California, and Michigan was a huge spot for us, as well as South Florida. South Florida was a huge demand for body kits, spoilers. So, I dove in. We kicked it off in 2003-2004. That was when it was really hot. We ranked the website first for body kits, spoilers, and all the names, Buddy Club and all the crazy names we had for those body kits.
I ranked for all those positions, and the business was doing millions of dollars a year. I think we topped off at $3.5 million. We had the volume. I could see the trend was slowing down as far as we hit 2006 and it wasn’t so much about the body kits anymore and all the Fast and the Furious movies, so the trend cooled down. I sold the business to my supplier that was bringing in containers of product into LA.
Through that process, I sold the business – everyone’s read these self-help books, 4-Hour Workweek and all these books that we read for personal development. I was literally in my fifth week of sitting on the beach thinking, “What am I going to do next?”, and it came up, I’ve got these six other business owners that, through the last few years, I’ve worked with. They’ve called and said, “Hey, my name’s Jim. I got your number from Bryan Bloom” or whoever it is. “Can you help me with my online marketing? I hear your business has grown really quick.”
By the time I gave OptFirst a name, I already had six clients paying me monthly to help them with their internet marketing. In 2008, I moved myself and my business from California to South Florida. At that point, I gave OptFirst a name.
So the backstory on OptFirst really is I’m used to working with other business owners in order to really focus on profitable conversions, make sure that they make money with their online marketing campaigns, and that eye always being on, every month, I want to show you how much money you’re making per campaign, per campaign type – make sure you’re making money so that we have a long-lasting relationship.
I don’t know about you, but I get clients that might be medium-sized or institutional, they’re large clients, and they’re like, “Listen, we just want to focus on our branding.” It’s like, “No, you don’t. You really don’t want to focus on your branding. We have to quantify what the target is here and how we can quantify success. Because if you can’t prove that you’re making money through your campaigns, at some point shareholders and board members are going to want to know. If we can just cut that out in the beginning and set up the pieces to make sure that you’re running profitable campaigns, we’ll be together for a long time, happily.”
I’ve got a local locksmith that’s been with us for 10 years straight. He knows the ups and downs of the ecosystem of SEO. Let’s say we’re just talking about that. But through the ups and downs, making sure that she ranks – just last year, she was like, “We ran the numbers, and 39% of our new business comes from our SEO campaign. After 10 years, that feels great.”
So that’s really the approach of OptFirst: one business owner working with another. I think that can’t be replicated as far as – we have two types of competitors that we may lose business to. Well, I guess there’d be three. There’s the one-off internet whiz kid that is someone’s nephew in someone’s business and it’s like, “This kid’s the smartest kid ever.”
The second is vertical internet marketing agencies. Sometimes we’ll be running a campaign for 2 or 3 years for our client, and then a weight loss specific internet marketing company will come along and they’ll speak the right jargon. They’re like, “Oh, you definitely need to go this route.” Speaking the same jargon, we’ll get clients that will try those companies out and then quickly come back.
The third is the traditional marketing agency that’s trying to tack on digital as a service. Those are really the only places that we ever lose clients to. I don’t know about you, but that’s our experience.
ROB: You mentioned different sizes of clients. Is there a trend of when you started – you mentioned BodyKits.com; it seems like one of the interesting opportunities there was – I mean, it wasn’t early early for ecommerce, but it was kind of early. I would imagine one of the opportunities there was dealing in a product that was worth shipping. What I mean by that is just that it’s potentially a higher margin item that someone understands you have to pay to ship the thing when not everybody could do Prime shipping.
So, what were those early clients? Because it sounds like your through-line, your prequel to the agency, was performance and converting. I would imagine that’s been a trendline throughout. But the types of businesses that can afford to retain you and care about converting has probably shifted remarkably over the life of the company.
JOHN: Oh, absolutely. Initially there were other old school manufacturers of widgets, let’s say. It ran the gamut. But they could see that I was moving into a larger warehouse every 6 to 9 months. What we ran into – when we started, I remember the uproar of Overture, 5 cent bids. Overture had the audacity to raise from 5 cent to 10 cent clicks. We’re like, “What? They’re ruining ecommerce! Who’s going to pay 10 cents for a click?” Obviously, that piggybacked on the whole Yahoo! infrastructure and when they really owned search.
That moved over to Google. Obviously, in 2005 Google started winning, and it has ever since been winning the search engine war and the trackability through that adventure of AdWords, which is now Google Ads, really driving ecommerce.
But what I was getting referred to is owners of products – I remember the owner of the last warehouse I had with BodyKits.com had the exclusive deal to Costco for golf pushcarts. She’d had it for like 20 years, but there’s no money to make in Costco wholesale. They make sure of it. They whittle you down. So, she had this mass volume that needed another channel or outlet in order to be profitable.
was getting people with products, and when I moved to Miami, I was like, okay, I’ve got these six clients. All I need to do is get myself out there, go to business networking groups and say, “Hey, if you don’t have a website, let’s get a website. If you have a website, let’s either make it rank or do some ads towards it.” People in 2008 in South Florida looked at me like I was crazy. [laughs] I tried everything once.
And being in South Florida, I’ve been tricked once in every which way you could possibly be tricked as far as a client-agency relationship. But I try not to be fooled twice the same way. Initially I tried everything. I even went to a Kiwanis meeting once. I didn’t know if I was invited to it. These guys were all older gentlemen, over 70. I was like, “Listen, you guys need to get back in the business game. I can see they were all retired. What you need is a website. When you get that website, let’s make it rank.” Then I was like, okay, I need to change the strategy. This is crazy talk. This is not going to work. But I tried everything.
ROB: [laughs] It is remarkable the things that you’ll try once. We don’t talk about these stories very often. You’ve reminded me – I’d almost forgotten – I had somebody invite me to talk about social media marketing analytics at a Rotary club meeting. I did that, and great people, but not the best way to build the business.
JOHN: Oh man, I’ll never forget the Kiwanis stuff. Similar to the Rotary club. I remember that fondly because I’ve got account managers and junior account managers, and they’ll be like, “Oh, no, I can’t call on that business. I can’t go to that” – I’m like, listen, I went to a Kiwanis club where everyone was over 70, everyone was retired. I still gave it 100%. In order to get business, I’ve tried everything once, and I’ve tried to be humble about it because you never know.
And I tell you what – I’ve got a funny story for you, Rob. I saw when you sent me a connection on LinkedIn that we have a friend in common. I won’t mention him yet. I think I actually, in my example, let it slip. But one of our connections in common is Bryan Bloom.
Let me tell you a little backstory. Back in 2009, I had one client that I’d had since 2006, and he owned a moving company in San Diego, and I had him ranked first for 4 years for “moving company in San Diego.” He had three trucks. He used to call me every day. If he wasn’t first – you know how there was so much jostling of Google Maps back in that day. If he was second that day, I’d get a call from California like, “Hey, John, what’s going on? What have we got to do? I’m second today, I’m not first.” Because this was his whole marketing strategy – which nowadays I do not recommend. You need three channels of incoming advertising for any business. That’s what I’ve come to and what I’ve noticed.
I had an account manager at the time say – this guy was grandfathered in at a super cheap price, like $600 bucks a month, because that’s what he could afford. He’s like, “Why do you take this guy’s calls?” I said, “Because it’s key to his business. It’s kind of a friend of a friend. Let’s just leave it.” Sure enough, he was bought out by the largest moving company in Southern California. He bought him and he’s like, “I really don’t want your three trucks. I really don’t want to keep your employees. I just want the number of your SEO guy, because I’ve been trying to get first above you for 2 years. Can’t do it. Here’s a check and give me the number of your SEO guy.” That was Bryan Bloom. I saw that was the connection we had in common.
Time went on, and Bryan and I had a great relationship. He was Priority Moving. He bought out Gold Coast. Then time went on and Bryan said, “Listen, we’ve had a great relationship. I’ve decided to sell Priority to the largest moving company in California. And he wants to talk to you.” So, Republic bought Priority, and sure enough, they became a huge client for years on end.
This one small SEO client became – I think the account was anywhere from $12,000 to $15,000. Now we were going national, we had Republic, we had Priority, we had Gold Coast, all in one portfolio. I saw Bryan Bloom as a shared connection and that brought up that story for me.
ROB: Yeah, Bryan is a connection from – you know how this marketing world works, and certainly on LinkedIn as well. You just bump into people, and especially with this podcast, end up with some mutual connections like that.
You mentioned some of those early clients, and then it shifted a little bit. What does your client mix look like now? Obviously, SEO has a tremendously local dimension to it. It also has a national dimension to it, and I’m sure you’ve been pulled in some different directions.
JOHN: Absolutely. The client mix now is – we broke bread with Google at the end of 2010. I think that’s when the real reach out was where they were like – I don’t know your experience, but SEO was always kind of like the “let’s trick Google so that we’re first, and we’re sure not going to buy AdWords.” It was a rogue specialty. I’ve been certified with Google as 2010 and I think as an agency since 2011. So that’s when we all broke bread. They invited us into the fold and said, “You have these clients; why don’t you also offer Google Ads?”
Having that SEO base is, I think, really beneficial for any digital marketing agency. If we’re ranked first – of those first six clients – and it wasn’t Gold Coast, but people would call me and say, “I’ve got this widget manufacturing company. How much?” I was like, “It’s $2,500 a month.” Half of them would be like, “Cool, I got your number from so-and-so. Great.” The other half would be like, “Why so much?” I’m like, “I have no idea what to charge you. That’s the price. [laughs] This isn’t what I do. I sell after market auto parts. You called me.” That’s what it was. Those were the core six that I moved with.
The mix now – it started with ecommerce and then getting out into the world and networking every which way. We’ve got some really cool, interesting clients. We’ve got the University of Miami. We’re in our fourth year, so we’re 4-½ years under contract with them. We do their continuing education. We’ve got 22 different programs that we market for them. Every 2 weeks, we drill down in their Salesforce – we’ve got our incoming leads and then we’ve got our closed leads, and we’re quantifying our marketing campaigns, the profitability on spend, down to the last penny.
That and a couple others are dream clients because that’s where we want to be. We’re running SEO campaigns for that client, but we’re also running Google Ads, paid social. We were one of the first early adopters of the LinkedIn conversion campaign for the University of Miami. LinkedIn for so many businesses is the dream that never has come to fruition. It’s like, “Okay, we have all these businesses on here, and we know who the marketing directors are. This should be the best place to market in all the world.”
And it never came to fruition for us until the direct conversion campaigns were offered. I think that was maybe 3 years ago. LinkedIn reached out to us and they were like, “We want to take you and your client out to lunch because you guys are early adopters and you guys are outperforming all the other universities by 90%.” We were proving profitable campaigns on LinkedIn.
So that’s what our clients look like, whether it’s lead-based or it’s ecommerce-based. We even have a great client that we’re working with called FlixLatino. It’s like the Spanish Netflix. We’re up to 11 different campaign types. We have a weekly meeting drilling down to each campaign, CPAs across every campaign. What’s interesting – and I just gave another talk yesterday morning to a group of business owners – is that when we look at the CPA across all 11 campaign types, SEO is still the lowest CPA of all of our campaign types.
I hear from businesses online, I guess there’s a lot of mixed messages in media – coming from the day after the ballots have all been cast in the last election. 6 months out of the year, SEO is dead. It doesn’t exist. SEO is dead. It’s not real. The other 6 months, it’s like, “Yo, you know where I can get that SEO? I heard that SEO is where I need to be. You know where I could get some?” It’s like a whisper in a back alley. [laughs] That’s our experience.
I’m really glad you invited me on this podcast because even in the transitioning of clients to maybe wanting to try another agency, some of the greatest friendships and assets that I have are my relationships to other agency owners. Because you wouldn’t believe it unless you spoke to another agency owner that has gone through the same thing. It’s a wild journey and a wild story to tell.
ROB: There’s absolutely so much value in being able to compare notes, and particularly realizing that there is so much business out there. It’s really rare that you’re competing for business with somebody you know. You feel like it should be the case, but it just generally isn’t. A lot of times those friendly agencies can also be helpful when you need some extra capabilities around you.
If I rewind the story a little bit, you mentioned you were in that 2008-ish era in the business, and it’s worth highlighting that was a time of some economic challenges, financial crisis, all of that sort of thing. We’re far enough into this pandemic world now where some people think we’re back where we started; some people say it’s a K-shaped recovery, where some people are doing great and some people are doing not great. How do you see the similarities and differences between running an agency now and how clients are feeling versus that financial crisis era?
JOHN: I think this really is the time – other than creating processes for how we run campaigns, I’m known for making one-off slogans. Really, I say 2020 is survive, and then if you make it to 2021, then you can thrive. I think that really encapsulates it.
This is that time that certain businesses that we work with, especially the first 3 or 4 months of the pandemic, they had to put everything on pause. The local locksmith had 18 trucks, if I’m not mistaken, on the road; went down to one truck overnight, servicing all of the businesses that are in buildings in Miami Beach. It just came to a screeching halt. How can you make lemonade? Because we’re all getting lemons. How do you make lemonade?
Then other clients, like universities, the Spanish Netflix client I was referring to, they hit the gas. Universities increased two and a half times what they were spending. And of course, the app platform went four times what they were spending.
So as an agency, you ride with the clients that you have that are stepping on the gas, and on the flipside, just working with clients that you could count on for monthly work – it sounds crass, but monthly billables – just freezing them and giving them that grace period until they got back on their feet.
This is way different than the recession because I think there’s lemonade to be made in every business. That’s the talk that I’ve had with my business owners. Being based in South Florida, I would say everywhere from May to right at the end of the summer, all the way up to September, tourism slows down. It’s really hot. People aren’t going to South Florida. Tourism really drives the whole economy. So, I was already used to playing therapist 3-4 months out of the year. It just happened to transition where that happened during the pandemic.
And I was able to really focus with certain clients on new products and services we could offer them where they could make best use of this pandemic. You may or may not appreciate this – I sat around and said, “Listen, I’m going to have half my clients step on the gas right now.” It’s like summer just happened out of nowhere. That’s the effect. I was like, “What kind of off service do I offer that I know has a lot of value and I know will really land with my business owners that we work with?”
I’ve written three books on SEO and internet marketing and been through that process myself, so I was like, that really ties into our hire and reputation management campaigns, and those campaigns really are about controlling your Google presence. There’s no better way to control your Google presence than all of a sudden under that same name becoming an author. Automatically when you put a book out on Amazon, there’s a knowledge panel to be claimed as an author on Google, and then you really control your first page.
So I was like, why don’t I reverse engineer – and that’s how I’ve done SEO and every other internet marketing service we have – why don’t I just create the seven steps of becoming an author, put a price tag on it, go to my business owners, and say, “This is a great time, while you’re slow” – I’ve always pitched this, but they’re like, “I’m too busy to put my material together.” They have material that they’ve created. “I’m too busy for that right now.” I was like, “I know you’re not busy, so how about becoming an author?”
I’ve walked half a dozen business owners through the process of becoming an author through this pandemic. That was one of the added services in making lemonade out of the lemons that we all got for the business slowdown.
ROB: And you had been an author before the pandemic? Is that right?
JOHN: Yeah, I published three books. My most recent one on Amazon is The Online Marketing Manual. It’s my least interesting book. [laughs] My first book in 2014 was my Jerry Maguire moment. I thought that I’d just figured out and reverse engineered how to make each client first. I woke up in the middle of the night, got out my whiteboard. I was like, “I have been figuring it out for 12 years. I’ve got an 8-step SEO process.” I’m writing it all over the board.
The next morning, like Jerry Maguire when he goes “I have the client manifesto!” and is putting it on the boxes – I tell my whole team, “It’s the 8 steps!” I thought that I would reveal how I’d been ranking websites for 12 years and I’d go on a big speaking tour, and I wouldn’t have an agency anymore, but it’s the right thing to do to tell everyone how to make your website first as a process.
Lo and behold, I got the book finished, I brought myself through, I wrote a chapter every night, whichever step it was, and I honestly thought – just the naïveté of being in the moment and when you really get passionate about something – I would hand an 8-step SEO plan to a prospective client. I thought, they’ll read it, they won’t accept the proposal, but they’ll know how to do it themselves. it’s the right thing to do.
They would thumb through it. Barely read it. They’d say, “You obviously know what you’re talking about,” and they’d sign the proposal right there on the spot. I thought, “Why would you hire me? I just told you how I’m going to do it.” They’re like, “Well, you obviously know how to do it, and I sure don’t want to do it. Sounds like a bunch of geeky stuff.” I was shocked. [laughs] I was like, we’re busier than ever. This is going to mess up my speaking tour. That never happened at that time. [laughs] It’s funny how one thing leads into another.
ROB: There’s so many good lessons in there. This can be a moment to look at what assets we have sitting around and to reframe them. In that case you’re mentioning you have this 8-step plan, and you twist it around and its proposals, and then I think we misconstrue what the purpose of a proposal is sometimes. The purpose of the proposal – you’re seeking to inform, and indeed, you are. But in the process, it’s also that proof of competence and that proof that they can trust you because they don’t want to do it.
And you also thought about having this knowledge of how to make a book, and you have the lived experience of using it well, and you’re able to turn that around and say “What else can you do with it?” A college can focus on how people may not want to go to their campus, or they can focus on what is probably a pretty high margin product of their online course and selling that to people who are also sitting at home and have this opportunity of time to make themselves better.
JOHN: Absolutely. So much has come out of this. So much information, misinformation. But businesses, I think we’ve finally got full adoption into the core need of internet marketing as one of those staples, those mainstreams – like the auto industry and dealerships have accepted and moved over to digital and accepted it as their core strategy. I see it now, and it took a while.
I don’t know if this happened at your agency, but initially people were like, “God, you’ve got to be busier than ever!” But I think there was this deer-in-the-headlights moment that lasted the first 3- ½ to 4 months. The businesses that had capital, that cancelled all their tradeshows, let’s say – so they’ve got this excess budget – I think there was a deer-in-the-headlights. And I still see it happen where people haven’t pulled the trigger, and I think that’s finally melting. People are like, “Our core strategy needs to move, no matter what, to digital.”
Which is amazing to me because I remember pitching dealerships back in ’08 and ’09 and looking down and saying, “5-8% of our overall marketing has been allocated to digital.” And just last year, being in a dealership and the client saying, “Hey, we’ve decided to heck with it” – this is before COVID – “we’re going to go 100% digital!” To have that and be part of the industry during that transformation, I’m just like, Wow, they’re really going to cancel their radio and TV? I’m shocked.” And only because I’ve been there for the whole history of it, and I see a lot of other industries finally pulling that trigger.
I think that the election needs to pass and the commotion around it, any which way, and then I think we see full guns blazing to adopting new agencies and moving that – I’m still working with clients that are only at 30% digital because 70% was all their tradeshows booked out. There’s an exorbitant amount of money that some businesses spend on that type of advertising. It’s amazing.
ROB: We saw the auto industry part right up front and center. We did an extended road trip this summer to my in-laws’ place out in Utah and found ourselves realizing we needed to replace our car in the middle of a pandemic in not-our-home-state. They were kind of in between. Some stuff was very digital and easy, and some stuff was still – maybe the marketing is more up to it, but the actual buying process, they were pretty old school. They wanted to see you there in person. It was not very customer-centric, but that’s okay.
Business-wise, I agree. I’ve seen what you see. We have a Software-as-a-Service product, and we also have a software-product-development-shop kind of agency, and there was certainly this – March was almost like everybody kept doing whatever they were doing. April and May, we saw a lot of retraction. But then June, and from then onward, there’s a lot of people who realize they’ve got to go full speed ahead.
We were talking before – we’re in hiring mode because people put those projects on hold for so long until they felt like they couldn’t. Maybe we’ll be in a micro version of that around the election. We’re going to spend a week, we’re going to count some votes, maybe we argue a little bit. But I think there are a lot of people who are fed up with waiting to serve their business. So, I’m definitely seeing that.
John, when people want to find you and when they want to find OptFirst, where should they go to connect with you?
JOHN: OptFirst.com is our domain. Information there. And then just like you did this morning, John Kriney on LinkedIn. I always review those and accept any connections there. I keep an open line of communication. That’s always the best way. Anyone that wants to email me directly, it’s email@example.com.
ROB: Super solid. John, thank you for joining the podcast, and best wishes to you and OptFirst.
JOHN: Yeah. Hopefully you’ll have me back on the show. I’ve listened to a lot of episodes, and you’re doing a great job, Rob. I really think it’s a service to the industry getting new takes and talking to other agency owners. I really enjoyed it.
ROB: I enjoyed it as well. Thanks for sharing your experience, John. Be well.
JOHN: Thanks. Bye.