In this week’s “From the Ground Up” interview, we sit down with Laura Cole, vice president of marketing, training, and channel sales at Vivial, an UpCity Certified Premium partner and 2020 National Excellence Award winner. Below we discuss how Vivial has adapted their business over the last 100 years, their approach to managing client relationships at scale, and more!
Q: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today, Laura.
Let’s get started by having you tell us a bit about your background and your company, Vivial.
A: It’s my pleasure! I’ve been with Vivial for the past 18 years and am currently the vice president of marketing, training, and channel sales. I have a long relationship with this company and this industry. We’ve worked with everyone from small businesses to large enterprises, but our foundation is really in helping local businesses, after all we’ve been doing that for over 100 years. As consumer shopping trends have changed, Vivial has also changed, ensuring we meet the demands of our customers. Over the last five to seven years, Vivial has made significant investments in technology and have acquired other companies that are in the digital marketing landscape. That’s allowed Vivial to expand our business and services to help our customers be found in a variety of new and innovative ways.
We’ve helped hundreds of thousands of businesses across the U.S. and have worked in all different geographies and industries, everything from contractors to retail stores to restaurants to healthcare, B2B and B2C.
Q: Wow. So you’ve been with Vivial for 18 years, but the company itself has been around for more than a century?
A: That’s right. Our foundation is in print advertising, but we’ve evolved to now primarily focus on digital marketing. We’ve been around a long time and our business has had to adjust over the years. But the one element that remains consistent is our commitment to people. We put our employees and the customer’s best interest at the forefront of our decisions.
Q: Interesting. Were you a part of that transition from more print-based, traditional marketing services to the new world of digital marketing?
A: Absolutely. When I started 18 years ago, we still had a lot of our foundation in print, but we were starting to expand into digital products. There were things that were part of early online marketing that we offered. However, it really wasn’t until we recognized the transformation of how people search and look for businesses that our digital products and innovation grew substantially.. Consumer habits change dramatically, almost exponentially year over year. We had customers coming to us seeking answers and asking, “How do I get found online?” and so we had to invest in new technology, new infrastructure and further invest in our people.
Q: Throughout that experience of transforming Vivial from a traditional marketing company to a digital-focused agency, what were the most challenging aspects?
A: We have to give a lot of credit to our executive leadership team. They had the foresight to understand that in order to scale in the way that we wanted, we had to make significant investments in owned technology and expand our infrastructure to allow us to scale. It was a very intentional decision to bring a large variety of products and services into the mix and the main reason was because we work with such different types of businesses across the country.
A business in California is different from a business in Texas or Nebraska or New York, even if they provide the same type of service. We wanted to be able to meet the variety of demands, but that was a really hard decision to make early on; making the investment in terms of dollars and in terms of our team’s time to invest in education and technology wasn’t easy.
We have over 800 employees across the United States, and we’ve invested millions of dollars into things to help us stay on the leading edge and allow us to scale. How we manage our accounts, our operational workflow, the tools we use, the list goes on. Making those early decisions that allowed us to scale effectively was tremendously difficult, but I think that’s been the key to our success.
Q: Interesting. As you know, local is absolutely HUGE for digital marketing, especially organic search. As a national agency, how do you ensure that you’re providing personalized and effective service to each and every client?
When you’re working with a veterinarian in Omaha one day and an e-Commerce fashion brand in L.A. the next, how do you ensure that your clients feel that they’re still getting the attention and care they need?
A: A big part of that has been our foundation in local businesses. We have over 100 years of experience working with local businesses and we’re fortunate to have 20+ physical office locations across the country, so we have our feet on the street everywhere from Alaska and Hawaii to North Carolina and New York. Vivial spans the country and our sales representatives are based in even more cities; so overall I would venture to say we have employees in almost 200 cities.
That kind of experience and presence helps us to provide customized care to all our clients, meet with them face to face on their terms. At the same time, we benefit from working with so many different types of businesses because we’re able to apply our learning across industries. I think many of the clients we work with understand that and are happy to work with someone that not only knows them, but that has almost certainly worked with businesses like theirs in the past.
We like to think of our clients as partners. Our expertise is in marketing; we’ve been doing this for many years and we know it like the back of our hand. Similarly, we trust that our clients know their business inside and out as well. We try to make the complex simple by bringing our expertise to the table and helping our clients apply it to their business.
Q: One of the things that I find interesting about your agency is that you also partner with other digital marketing companies in a whitelabel capacity. We’re huge proponents of whitelabel services here at UpCity, especially because they can help smaller businesses expand their revenue streams without scaling their team right away.
How have those types of partnerships contributed to Vival’s growth?
A: That’s a great question. We think about partnerships in a variety of different ways. We have partnerships with some of the big guys like Google, Facebook, and other technology providers, but we also partner with other agencies and other types of companies as well. We even have partners that resell our services and solutions to their clients. Maybe they’re a master agent or a newspaper or some other type of organization in need of marketing services.
Our goal with partnerships is to always make sure that we’re bringing the best products and services to the clients that we work with. We work with everyone from small mom-and-pop shops with less than five employees to multimillion dollar corporations with employees around the globe; in order to be able to provide so many different types of clients with the solutions and products they need, it’s important for us to create those long-term partnerships with brands that we trust. Our breadth and scale allow us to be very flexible in terms of the way that we partner with other brands and the way that we make sure that our customers have exactly what they need.
Q: I want to change gears a bit and talk more about how you manage so many different clients on a day to day basis. One of the things that smaller agencies tend to get wrong is communication and expectations.
How do you keep those feedback loops open and what does the average client relationship look like at Vivial?
A: First and foremost, it’s important to meet the client where they are and tailor the relationship to them. In most cases, you would think that people would want high-touch, high-communication engagements; from our perspective, that’s ideal, but in reality, not all clients want that type of service. Especially with smaller businesses, they really just want to focus on running their own business and doing what they do best.
So in that sense, it’s important to gain an understanding between us and the client that dictates the type of communication they want. Maybe getting a quick text message is easier than taking a phone call; maybe they’re constantly out on job sites and so they need emails or late night calls. As long as we have the right understanding between our team and the client from the beginning, we’re happy to facilitate whatever level of communication works (within reason!).
For most of the clients that we work with, I’d say we’re in touch at the minimum once per month. Each client is assigned an account coordinator who is really their quarterback, so to speak; clients don’t need to talk to five different people, it’s just that one point person. In addition, all of our clients have real-time 24/7 access to live dashboards and various online platforms that give them access to all of their performance data. Some customers prefer to log onto a computer, look at things themselves, then schedule a call with their account coordinator. Typically, we schedule monthly calls and we go over that data as well. For clients that are larger in scale, we usually talk to them much more frequently, sometimes even multiple times per week depending on the type of deliverables that we have for them.
If I had to describe our communication strategy, I’d say it’s transparent. We pride ourselves on being a very transparent organization; we want our clients to understand how their products are performing, what things are working well, what things aren’t working well, and what things we need to do to improve. Depending on the engagement, that might require more or less communication.
Q: Another thing that really sets Vivial apart, especially on UpCity, is your large number of reviews. What would you say has been the biggest driver of that success?
A: In general as a company, we do a very consistent job of repeatedly asking our customers how we are doing. Our customers know that we’re not begging for positive reviews: we’re legitimately and honestly asking how we can perform better. Naturally, many of our clients have taken the opportunity to leave us positive reviews and we’re incredibly grateful for that, but we view negative reviews as almost equally rewarding. Negative reviews are a learning opportunity, a time for us to understand where we can improve our processes and how we can make the next client engagement better.
Part of that feedback loop that we have with our clients also involves consistent transactional surveys. Those customer surveys help us understand things that might go unmentioned in a public review on Google or Facebook. Ultimately, it’s about improving our business with each new client relationship, so the more ways we can gather feedback, the more information we have on how to get better.
Q: I couldn’t agree more! For the final few questions, I’d love to chat a bit about the partnership between Vivial and UpCity. How did that relationship start and what effect has that partnership had on your business?
A: We attend a lot of industry conferences and I had met members of your leadership team before. At one point, your team got in touch with our marketing department, and that’s when we decided to start a larger discussion. We started with a very small trial and since then, our relationship has grown and proven to be incredibly impactful over the last year or so.
It’s certainly been an additive source of traffic and leads for us. We focus a lot on our own SEO and search engine visibility, but UpCity allows us to add to what we’re already doing internally and appear in more SERPs than we would otherwise.
Our clients have responded really positively to UpCity as well (as we mentioned we’ve been extremely grateful to receive so many positive reviews in such a short time). Ultimately, I think the biggest benefit we’ve seen from UpCity is the introduction it’s given us to other businesses in the communities that we serve. We’ve gotten a number of qualified leads (now customers!) from the Marketplace and we’ve had incredible success with them. The longevity of those relationships is an especially great thing to see because it means we’re finding clients that are the right fit for us.
Q: That’s great to hear! Those are exactly the types of experiences we want to create for our partners.
Before we sign off, did you have any closing thoughts that you’d like to leave our readers with? Any advice for other agency owners on where the industry might be heading?
A: For me, the most interesting thing about this industry is how fast everything changes. A few years ago, we likely didn’t see that mobile would grow as exponentially as it has. Today, everyone is excited about voice, AR and the unlimited possibilities. By this time next year, who knows what the hot new trend will be?
To be successful in this industry, you have to carve out time every week to educate yourself and stay on the forefront, to get smart as I like to say. Things change so rapidly that if you don’t stay on top of them, you risk being left behind.
Q: Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us today, Laura.
A: It’s been an absolute pleasure. Thanks for having me!
As vice president of marketing, training, and channel sales, Laura Cole is responsible for bringing the latest online, social and mobile solutions to businesses of every size. She leads a passionate and creative team focused on Vivial’s go-to-market strategy, branding, public relations and digital marketing strategy, as well as the company’s customer-centric training model and sales enablement strategy. She is also responsible for driving indirect sales for Vivial, with a focus on growing the company’s reseller, channel and agency client base.
Laura has nearly 20 years of marketing and management experience, including roles in account management, sales, operations and product development. Laura holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.