Podcast

Empathy Is Trending Because It’s Rooted Our Need For Connection – Britney Muller

Britney Muller Bannersnack Podcast
37 minutes read

Throughout this entire season of Drag & Drop, we’ve had amazing female guests from a variety of industries – such as Brittany Berger, Tiffany da Silva, Meg Lewis, Lisa Glanz, Kaleigh Moore, and Hillary Weiss – who truly embody the whole spectrum of empathy.

“Empathy is the ultimate performance enhancer.”

It runs through their veins, and we can see it reflected in their work, in their community involvement, and in everything they write, create, and talk about.

What fascinates me about empathy is that it manifests in surprising ways. Here’s an example.

If you think about it, not only people impact others. In a world where we search for answers online, SEO plays an important role in shaping our perception, ideas, and even our habits – so empathy is fundamental for keeping SEO a positive force in the industry.

Britney Muller – my guest today – believes empathy comes from a genuine place. When you get into the world of technology, websites, and digital marketing, the best way to help your clients reach their customers in an empathetic way is to root your work and your strategies in data science.

So where do data-driven actions meet empathy-driven decisions? Stick around to find out!

Introducing Britney

Britney Muller is a Senior SEO Scientist at Moz and her work ranges from product R&D to creating educational SEO content to reverse engineering websites. Her experiments and insights make Britney a key knowledge source not only for SEOs but also for the entire digital marketing community.

Britney is a pro at helping others with thought-provoking ideas they can use to develop their own thing. She blends technical SEO with big data, machine learning, data science, content creation, public speaking, and much more, topping it all off with loads of empathy.

Today we get the chance to see the world from her perspective and better understand how empathy makes us more creative thinkers and doers with a purpose – so listen to Episode 07 of the second season of Drag & Drop, because I guarantee there’s lots to learn!

Stuff I was curious to find out:

  • How Britney cultivated the ability to combine empathy, technology, and her knack as a communicator with the data-driven aspects of her job. (07:41)
  • How people resonate with the concept of data science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. (10:03)
  • How we can reduce anxiety and convey a sense of calm for other people, from an SEO perspective. (20:31)
  • How Britney uses her skills to help her customers and other SEOs cultivate the ability to be patient and understand the compound effect that results from an experimentation-driven approach. (27:17)
  • How joining Moz enhanced her perception and practice of empathy. (37:02)
    How to use SEO tactics for growth but also for practicing empathy – even in technical aspects. (38:44)
  • Her perspective on what makes empathy timeless. (01:01:06)

What you can learn from this episode:

  • How cultivating empathy and instilling it early-on in a child’s life can create a world of opportunities for them. (02:49)
  • How to lean into experimenting with machine learning and accepting there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. (13:58)
  • How understanding your client’s goals helps you find the sweet spot between your authenticity and meeting their needs. (16:55)
  • How to elevate a website’s perceived quality in the eyes of Google. (19:15)
  • The importance of using the incognito browser when you’re doing a keyword search. (23:12)
  • An example of how spotting a user’s need that is not tackled by others can help you increase traffic on a website. (24:31)
  • How people’s relationship with empathy has evolved in the past few years from zero to hero. (32:42)
  • The importance of providing people different ways to consume content. (41:03)
  • How to develop long-term collaborations and why they increase your efficiency. (48:52)
  • How empathy helps us accept constructive feedback. (53:46)
  • The importance of connecting with your customers at a deeper level, beyond your brand. (01:01:44)

Key takeaways:

Always provide different ways of consuming content.

One of the most important aspects of marketing is to meet your audience where they’re at, and that’s why it’s best when you provide them with multiple ways to receive your message. A perfect method to do this is to repurpose your content and model it to fit various platforms (e.g. article > video > podcast > LinkedIn presentation > Twitter thread > email sequence). This is an incredibly powerful tool to retain a larger percentage of your audience – by giving them options. This is also a powerful way to practice empathy and serve your customers’ needs on their terms.

Put yourself in the user’s shoes.

To better understand how to market your product or how to use the right words to convey your message, the best way is to take off the marketer / SEO specialist / content writer hat and put on your audience’s shoes. Sometimes you have to get subjective to get people’s attention and using empathy to figure out how they feel when they hear or see your message can be a catalyst for creating better, more meaningful work.

The obstacle is the way.

If you’re putting yourself out there online, if you’re trying to create content, if you’re trying to move to the next level in your personal or professional life, you’re going to run into people who say terrible things to you and about you. These critiques can be paralyzing sometimes, especially when they come from people you admire. Be empathetic to yourself and take it with a grain of salt. Keep going on your path and continue to create positive change, always checking in with your audience and tribe to discover new ways to serve and contribute.

Transcript:

Andra Zaharia: “Empathy is the ultimate performance enhancer.” I loved this idea I saw in a 2018 presentation from MozCon, the Seattle-based digital marketing conference. When I think about this phrase and who embodies it, a lot of names come to mind. For content marketing is Brittany Berger, for entrepreneurship is Tiffany da Silva, for design is Meg Lewis, and when it comes to SEO, I immediately associate empathy-driven top performance with today’s guest, Britney Muller.

Andra Zaharia: In a world where we search for answers online to our most mundane and to our most important questions alike, SEO plays an important role in shaping our perception, ideas, and even our habits. So, we know that empathy is fundamental for keeping SEO a positive force in the industry, one that helps companies and users alike. But why does this matter? And how does it translate into practice? Stick around to find out.

Andra Zaharia: Welcome to the Drag & Drop show, where we explore how practicing empathy transforms how we do business and live our lives. I’m your host, Andra Zaharia, a fellow podcast listener and creator. This season, I’m on a journey with Creatopy to discover how leading women around the world use empathy to connect and do work that matters. Join us, to find out how to drag and drop small acts of empathy into our lives to make it more rewarding for us and those around us.

Andra Zaharia: Britney’s work doesn’t fit any regular patterns, and that’s why I learned so much from her. As a senior SEO scientist at Moz, Britney’s work ranges from product R&D to creating educational SEO content to reverse engineering websites. Her experiments, work, and insights make Britney a key source of industry knowledge. And it’s not just SEOs that follow her – the wider digital marketing community does it too. That’s because Britney is a pro at helping others with thought-provoking ideas they can use to develop their own thing – and now, we get to hear her in action!

Andra Zaharia: Britney blends technical SEO with big data, Machine Learning, Data Science, content creation, public speaking, and much more, topping it all off with loads of empathy. The result is an educational experience that opens a world of possibilities for creatives of all colors, from marketers to entrepreneurs and developers.

Andra Zaharia: So today, we get the chance to see the world from her perspective and better understand how empathy makes us more creative thinkers and doers with a purpose. So, Britney, tell me when did empathy make the biggest impact on your life?

Britney Muller: Well, first, that was such a beautiful intro! Thank you so much!

Andra Zaharia: Thank you for doing this!

Britney Muller: That was lovely! Oh my gosh, wow! So, empathy has always been baked into what I do and I think a large part of that comes from the way I was brought up. I mean, it was something my parents taught both my brother and me very early on. I’m originally from Minnesota, which is kind of in the middle of the United States, way up north by Canada, and we’re a bit known for empathy and just being kind to people. That has always been a big, big priority for my family. So, being raised around that and seeing that in my parents every single day with the people that they worked with, and their friends, and all of that, I think, had a really big imprint. And also, I think I noticed early on how having genuine empathy created opportunities for me. Very early on! I noticed that just being genuine and really looking at it from the other person’s point of view created a world of opportunities that I wouldn’t have had, had I just walked into different situations trying to sell myself or looking for the opportunity for me or having a selfish focus point. So yeah, I think it’s just naturally come over time like that.

Andra Zaharia: That’s so wonderful to hear because I feel like empathy is something that we understand instinctively, all of us, but it’s so difficult for us to define or to be able to point it in our environment or in relationships with other people because it’s sometimes confused with sympathy – I mean, the emotional spectrum is pretty, pretty large. I wanted to ask, what do you think makes Minnesota a place that has this distinctive characteristic? That’s something I’ve seen on TV shows, and I’ve seen it all around. I mean, it’s top of mind for me, and I’m on the other side of the world. So, I find that wonderful.

Britney Muller: That is so funny! It’s such a good question! I honestly have no idea. And it’s funny, like, as I get older, I notice it more and more when I go back. I think I really took it for granted growing up and it was just like, that was the way things were and it was totally normal. When I graduated college from the University of Minnesota, I had this dream of working in New York, and doing stuff out in New York and when I went out there for different job interviews, it was like a major slap in the face to realize that “Oh, everyone isn’t that nice.” Like, not everyone will help you with directions – those sorts of things were really hard for me. But yeah, I don’t know where that comes from. It’s such a great question. I think Minnesota is this wonderful melting pot, too; there’s lots of Norwegian heritage and lots of great Native American heritage, and I’m lucky enough to be a byproduct of those two things. So, I don’t know. There’s got to be something in the lineage of that, that just cultivated it.

Andra Zaharia: And it might be to diversity as well because I know that this is a key topic in your work in general and throughout all the presentations that you do in the community and so on – and of course, it’s such a vivid trait that we associate with Moz, as well. I really love how your upbringing and your personal history really intertwines with the work because I feel like in everyone that’s a community leader, in everyone who we value and follow and look up to, there’s always this mix where the job itself gives you an actual opportunity to cultivate your traits even further and make an even bigger impact with them. So, I really, really love seeing that in your work. And plus, you’ve taken your studies, which are Public Relations, and now you’re basically working in data science, which is such an interesting transition. I would love to find out how you managed to cultivate this ability to combine empathy and technology, and of course, your knack as a communicator with this very data-driven aspect of your job?

Britney Muller: Yeah, that is such a good question! Oh my gosh, I love being asked new and interesting questions like this, that I have never been asked before.

Andra Zaharia: Thank you!

Britney Muller: Yeah, such a brilliant question! Oh, my gosh! So, my immediate gut reaction when you asked that is that empathy really comes from a genuine place. I feel like the empathy that is most pure and most effective is really genuine and I think when I got into the world of technology and websites and digital marketing, I realized that I could do that most effectively when my suggestions and my work and my strategies were rooted in truth. And oftentimes, the only way I was able to get to that truth was through things like data science. And so, very early on, I became well aware of the power of machine learning and the power of data science and how some of my work was ineffective because I wasn’t using that as kind of a superpower to make my work more efficient and more accurate, quite frankly.

Britney Muller: There’s this big saying in machine learning, that “All models are wrong, but some models are useful.” And it couldn’t be more true! And so, given everything that we have, we’re never going to hit on the exact truth of the matter, but if we can get as close to possible for clients and be able to root strategy, root keywords, root content marketing in the things that we feel confident, that will move the needle for a particular client. I can speak much more confidently with that client and about this work and this effort than not putting in that extra kind of scientific work to back it up.

Andra Zaharia: That’s a wonderful perspective, especially because I feel this is such a pressing need right now in terms of maintaining authenticity and speaking to the right customers, especially through a delicate period where marketing, in general, of all types and in all shapes and forms is being challenged as being too salesy or as being insensitive sometimes toward what people are going through and there’s this entire emotional complexity that has basically overwhelmed everyone – including us marketers because we’re people too. And throughout all of this unique combination between technology and I guess human insight or intuition is incredibly important, but there’s no recipe for it. I mean, this is not a prescriptive approach – you have to figure it out on your own, and that’s where all these personal traits and qualities and tendencies come in, and that I can see making the difference between companies that really lead in that space. I’ve seen a meat selling company that published on Twitter this entire thread about critical thinking, which basically, was absolutely incredible, and I see all these brands that are doing such an incredible job in really stepping outside their role in the community, doing something fantastic and that’s clearly driven by a deep understanding of their customers because, at the end of the day, that’s where we all have to start from.

Andra Zaharia: I wanted to ask, in this context, given that you have access to such a sophisticated or an articulate, a clearer version of the truth, how do people resonate with that concept? Because I feel there’s still some resistance in the marketing world or outside of it – generally in companies – around data science and around reliability around data, especially because machine learning and artificial intelligence are still very experimental, very incremental, and people want surefire solutions as fast as possible.

Britney Muller: Oh my gosh, you’re exactly right! That is kind of the fine line and I’ve experienced both polar sides of that, where, even within the last couple of months, I got really excited about this one particular machine learning model for a client, and it just didn’t work the way we expected, it wasn’t totally accurate; while it worked for a bunch of other websites I tested on, it didn’t really work for theirs, but I’m very transparent in the fact that these are experimental and that machine learning is not the smartest thing in the world, right? It’s only as smart as the data and the bias you put into it. And so, you have to expect at some point, for example, if a website only has three years of traffic data, and you’re trying to predict traffic in there, but previously, it’s kind of all over the place, it’s going to be really difficult. So, you have to take all these weird little things into consideration, but I’m sort of more on the side of “Let’s just try it and see how it does because I’m so excited and I think it’s so much fun, and we’re all learning from it.” And so, usually, it’s very little investment from the website or the client and it’s more experimental on my end.

Britney Muller: On the other side of things where it goes from, I’m not so sure this might not really work, and here’s how little I know about what the model’s actually doing, and I try, in so many ways, to describe what the internal model is doing and applying weights to different factors, to the other side of things where it’s not really a machine learning black box; it’s really driven in data that I can show – and I think that’s what’s the most powerful for marketers and for SEOs today. Let’s say you have a client that wants to rank number one for a particular term, and they’re dead set on it. You do a search for that and you can see very, very clearly what it is that Google is showing. Because you have to remember, Google houses the world’s information. They know what the majority of people searching for a particular thing are most likely to want, most likely to go after – whether that’d be images or video or product or whatnot. They know what that endpoint satisfies the user. And so, as marketers, we need to lean heavily into that and evaluate, “Okay, well, what are they showing? What does this intent of the searcher look like?” And oftentimes, it doesn’t match the particular client or the particular product and it’s really an educational moment of showing and explaining that and saying, “Sit down with me, let’s look at this. Consider why you might not be competitive here and why this is okay because you have other incredible opportunities over here.” And so, you can kind of redirect the conversation back to things that you feel more confident in their success and in being able to rank and, again, solve for that search or intent – where does that live? So, I sort of play between those very different ends. And sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Andra Zaharia: But it’s this experimental approach that I feel is so incredibly powerful as a learning experience, especially when it’s shared across teams. And I love how you talked about visualization and all this nuance that I feel it evolved, obviously, like in any other field, but in SEO now, it’s really visible. I mean, the nuance layer and the context, the intent, they’ve become so important, but people are still having a difficult time understanding how to do it and how to do it at scale because that’s a big challenge. I mean, as humans, we infer contexts right away. And yes, we make mistakes but we’re basically trained to do that, while machine learning algorithms are still picking that up, and we’re teaching them a great deal. So, when you have all this nuance, how does it feel to apply it at scale for brands who are really big and who have high volumes and find this balance between authenticity and being able to meet the customer where they need it when they need it.

Britney Muller: Yeah, that’s another brilliant, brilliant question! I think the magic in finding that sweet spot really lies in completely understanding their goals. And I mean, down to not only what are the KPIs they care about, but what are their perceived goals of the future? Are they after the short term or are they after the long term? That’s often a conversation I have, and sometimes it’ll be a hybrid approach, but sometimes, clients are somewhat desperate to get results quickly. And so, if you can know that, the sooner you know that the better you can perform and satisfy the client. But without knowing where their head is at and what it is that they’re trying to achieve, it’s really difficult to kind of meet the needs where they’re at.

Britney Muller: I also always love to ask, “What are your highest profit margins of either a product or a service?” That’s one of my first questions: “Should we be prioritizing on these different things over the rest of the products or the rest of the services?” And oftentimes, that is helpful to create a focus for the marketer and for the SEO because you’re exactly right – oftentimes, with these large brands and these huge websites, it would be impossible to market for everything, it would be impossible to go in and optimize every single page on the website. It’s just way too large. And so, then it really turns into a scalability issue of “Okay, well, as a person in my position, what are the things I have control over that can create immediate opportunities for the client?” And so, then your brain should really shift into deeply understanding their website.

Britney Muller: A great example of this is with these really large, unwieldy websites, you can do different analysis through Google Analytics and Screaming Frog and you can identify very thin, low or zero traffic pages, that you can deindex and clean out from their website graph of pages. And what that does is it elevates the website’s perceived quality in the eyes of Google because, if you’re an SEO, you’re always coming at these problems as Googlebot; your brain is thinking like a crawler and so, you’re being, “Okay, so the way crawlers crawl the internet and crawl websites is how could the crawler perceive your site as higher quality than it currently is?” One is just getting rid of cruft, getting rid of low traffic, low thin quality pages, and elevate the perceived quality of your website. Two, is like having better intent matches for the keywords you’re after – just overall, thinking of the website in terms of something you can mold and shape to basically support.

Andra Zaharia: It’s kind of like looking for or articulating an identity and as you go through this process, you constantly evolve and you grow and you add things and then you realize you don’t need to anymore and it’s a living organism. And I, for one, love seeing it like that, because as a content marketer, I am plugged into everywhere and I’m trying to just work as much SEO insight into my work as possible, simply because it helps me gauge exactly that interest and speak to the people who want to hear from me – which is something that’s been on repeat in the marketing world for such a long time. But now, I feel there’s no more ramp up time. I mean, we have to do it now because people, and each one of us, are in a situation where we have limited attention, limited mental space and that’s been overcrowded with so many emotions and feelings and reactions. And there is no choice. I mean, we can’t hide behind excuses or appearances or whatever it may be. We really have to be there for other people. And there’s also power in this because I loved your tweet the other day, where you said that anxiety is incredibly contagious, but so is calm and that as marketers, we’re in a flight attendant role and when other people look at us it’s up to us to convey that sense of calm. So, I’m very, very curious, how does this look from an SEO’s perspective? How do you bring this from a conceptual level to a tactical one?

Britney Muller: Yeah, that’s brilliant! It’s difficult. I think, oftentimes, there’s no blueprint for doing SEO the right way for any given website, because it’s kind of prescriptive, exactly like what you said, and it’s like a person – websites are like people and you need different prescriptions and therapy for different people. And so, I think it really comes down to giving the individual the tools to identify those things and to kind of, on their own, create their own heuristic model of sorts where they can approach any given website, and with the tools that they have can create a pretty good plan of action based on the things that they know move the needle, common website things within your control.

Britney Muller: Also, just having a really good toolset for competitive analysis will take you so far. So, if you can identify the website’s actual search competitors – oftentimes these are different from what the client thinks that their competitors are – and if you can reverse engineer, “Okay, why are they this client’s competitors and what are they doing really, really well? What are the keywords that maybe them and another website rank really well for, that your client isn’t even on the radar?” And then, you start to come up with different ideas. And not only that, but it helps you dial in some keyword research to find real keyword opportunity gaps, where you see a particular keyword with decent volume, hopefully. And it doesn’t have to be a crazy amount. I’ve even done this with 50 to 100 searches a month, but it has very low competition. And not only that, when you do the actual search – and this is something I think not enough people do – when you’re doing keyword research, and when you’re doing analysis for a client, you should be doing the actual searches in an incognito browser. And when you’re doing that, think of the user.

Britney Muller: And so, a funny example I’ve used a lot that’s just a favorite of mine is, I was doing SEO for an MRI company – a medical scanning company – and when we were doing keyword research, my team and I thought was so funny that we kept coming across this open versus closed MRI. Our particular client is the largest open MRI company in the US or was at the time. And we thought, “This is interesting and people are curious about it. They’re trying to do comparisons. Let’s see what that search result page looks like.” And when we went to the result page, no one was providing comparison, no one had answers about the differences, even what it looked like, versus a closed one – all this stuff. And we kept saying to this client – even though we weren’t on for content, we were just on to help optimize the site of it – we kept pushing, and we said, “What if we just made this page for fun as a squeeze page of sorts, and just see how it does?” And they didn’t like this idea. They thought it was weird. The two CEOs at the time were totally against this idea and so, it took a couple of pushes, and finally, we were able to get them just to be like, “Okay, go for it.” And four or five, six years later, I would continue to get random phone calls from the CEOs laughing because that page continued to bring double the traffic of their homepage and an incredibly qualified amount of traffic. And what was so beautiful about that was like, that wasn’t me, that wasn’t my team even, right? This wasn’t us. This was literally the data showing itself through our process.

Britney Muller: And I think that’s what’s so beautiful is, you don’t know that these things are necessarily going to work, you don’t know that these are going to be home runs, but you have to go with your gut every once in a while and take some of those risks. And, like you kind of alluded to earlier, it’s prescriptive, and you can always pivot – and that’s the beauty of it. And oftentimes, that is the best recipe for success: you suggest these things, you repurpose top-performing content for a particular website – maybe it’s on YouTube, maybe it’s on SlideShare and Quora and all of these other places – and then after a few months, you revisit that and you say, “Did we get qualified traffic from any of those platforms?” And if maybe you didn’t for a couple, don’t invest in them anymore. So, it’s a constant rinse and repeat of best practices and I think that gets people closer and closer to their goals.

Andra Zaharia: It absolutely does and I love that sorry! I think sometimes, especially for smaller companies who have more limited resources, it is an act of empathy to create these resources for people – whether it’s a comparison or a free guide, or something that really takes something apart and walks people through it in a way that’s actually practical, and not just nice things that people would like to do at some point in their lives. And when they do take this content and make this thing available when they tap into their specialist expertise, and they put it out there and they create that emotional connection, I feel that’s the kind of experience that also drives empathy, but it’s data-driven, and I feel it covers all the bases and it also gives you a very good reference point. And examples like these, and the fact that you talk about it is so important just for other people to know that this is possible. Yes, it requires some trial and error, but it is possible and most often than not, it comes with surprising results and compound effects over time. I’ve seen that with content so many times, but especially in this context, and whatever’s coming next, how do you persuade people to have a bit more patience? Because we generally, as a race, we lack patience, and now it feels like it’s constricting – it’s just in shorter supply. So, how do you help your customers and other SEOs cultivate this ability to be patient and to work for that compound effect?

Britney Muller: I think it’s very, very difficult, and, to be completely candid, I don’t think I’m particularly excellent with patience, at all. I’m very motivated by execution and getting things done quickly, and when I feel patience is lacking in a client, it’s similarly frustrating for me. So, I have complete empathy for any of those that might struggle with this. I do think there is power in patience, though, and I think it’s necessary, especially for something like search, where it does typically take anywhere from one to three months to get things up and running for improvements – and I think explaining that early-on to clients helps set expectations and that’s really preventative to not get you in the hot seat because they’re not seeing results within the first week or two. But it’s tough. It’s really tough. Do you have any prescriptive advice for patience?

Andra Zaharia: I must say, I am not the most patient person, either. My field of action is content marketing, so that also requires patience. It always does, especially if you want to keep it at a certain level and infuse empathy into it and so on. So, in those cases where I’ve managed to develop a long-term strategy and follow-through, it was based on a relationship of trust with my manager or the CEO or my clients. So, I feel trust is fundamental for everything that we do in general, but especially for these experiments and projects where there’s a certain dose of uncertainty – and that’s very high nowadays, and the only way to bridge this uncertainty is to trust the process and to apply it and obviously to measure and to see how else that particular effort is serving other parts of the company or the community, and also learn to see those benefits that may be more nuanced and abstract and not something that businesses have customarily measured in the past.

Britney Muller: Definitely! And good content takes time, right?

Andra Zaharia: Yes!

Britney Muller: A quality piece of content to stand the test of time is not going to happen overnight.

Andra Zaharia: Exactly! Exactly. And I feel everything is becoming very personal, generally, in the creative industries, overall. I feel there’s this not necessarily a tipping point, but we’re at a place where technology mixes a lot with individual experience and there’s this craftsmanship aspect to it, but also the desire to scale that ability to craft a certain kind of campaign and message and content. So, I feel we’re very lucky to be at this point, and I do believe that marketers can do a lot of good. So, I love that we’re talking about empathy and SEO, because when people think about this particular sector, empathy may not be at the top of their minds, or even just generally not connected to it. But, the fact of the matter is that all good specialists work this into their body of work, generally.

Britney Muller: Completely! It’s about cultivating that connection with other people and with the audience. I think that only really comes from, again, a genuine empathetic place. And I think it’s kind of funny, like, I was just thinking, empathy wasn’t always cool or trendy. I brought this up for years how this is a huge part of my work and how my focus is always on the audience. I’ve always said, from day one, when I get on a stage, it is 120% never about me. Never – not even if they asked me to do a quick intro or a story about myself. I’m constantly wheeling in my head in what ways can I communicate things to provide value? It’s 100% about the people sitting in those seats, giving me their two most valuable resources: their time and their attention. And I have so much respect and empathy for that, that I take my work so seriously as a result and it means the world to me to just try to be the best catalyst I can be for this information to give to them because they’re giving so much to me. And so, it’s this beautiful give and take, and I think it’s funny because, again, I don’t think it was perceived as a powerful trait to have lots of empathy and to lead with empathy. I’d gotten the impression over the years time and time again, whether it’d be on podcasts or in interviews, that it wasn’t powerful. Maybe it was effective, but I got the perception from other professionals that it wasn’t as aggressive or strategic or all this stuff, and what I think is so interesting is, all of a sudden, with the current landscape and with COVID, it is number one on everyone’s mind. I mean, I was on Skype, going to call you for this and while I was waiting, I looked and there was an advertisement in the bottom left-hand corner of the Skype screen, and it said, “Sell with empathy – Salesforce.” Like, it is the most trendy thing right now because all of a sudden it makes sense to people.

Britney Muller: I think no one articulated this better than Rand Fishkin’s recent post, “Read the Room”. He is so spot-on with that article and you’re speaking to silent audiences or people who won’t even get past the first couple of words if you can’t read the room and you don’t have empathy for the current situation. So, I just think it’s so fascinating to see how this has so suddenly sort of shifted because it was even – I won’t say who – I was doing a podcast not even two and a half months ago, where the hosts were joking about how that was my thing. Empathy was my thing. And now it’s like, it’s not a joke. I think it’s at the root of being human and it’s at the root of connecting with people and also just understanding them and meeting them where they’re at – and I think that’s more important today than ever.

Andra Zaharia: It is so true! It has become such a business priority and the fact that we’re here discussing this and that we’re seeing it all over the place, and obviously, there are going to be people who only kind of display it or try to mimic it and not actually do the real thing, which is often difficult and it involves emotional labor, which takes resources and time and patience, like we just discussed. But, on the other hand, it’s an incredible chance for the people who have been in these companies – because I feel that there are these kinds of people everywhere who have been pushing for empathy and for actually using it, leaning into it, really leaning into it, and not just putting it on the list of values and just leaving it there, but doing what, for example, Moz has been doing since forever – because, well, Rand. I mean, you have this set of principles internally, and I was curious how it enhanced your perception and practice of empathy when you joined Moz because I feel like with your brain gig and that particular internal culture, that is a beautiful fit.

Britney Muller: It is so beautiful! And I think it really supported the empathy I had already been leading with and helped it to grow even more. And it made a safe space for it to bring your authentic self to work and to provide content and material and educational resources that I felt were most empathetic to the user.

Andra Zaharia: That is lovely to hear, and it translates into the community and the fact that just you and other colleagues from Moz, like it was for me, for example, following Kevin from Buffer – it’s these messages and, again, Moz and Buffer were talking about empathy many, many years before it was cool or trending or even valued. I feel like it was just opening the way and leading the way for those people who felt the same, but couldn’t really use this part of themselves at work or not use it sufficiently or have a big enough impact. But now that’s happening, so that is wonderful to see.

Britney Muller: Yeah.

Andra Zaharia: I feel like there are some aspects of SEO which are a bit more tactical that actually help marketers and even business owners or journalists or developers actually work empathy into everything that they do – and I think about things like accessibility and giving people options to consume content in different lens and formats. What else could marketers and everyone else who relies on SEO for growth, focus on in terms of these small tactical aspects?

Britney Muller: Oh my gosh! First of all, I just want to commend you because you are like a rare diamond in the rough, who has content marketing knowledge and also completely understands these other sophisticated aspects of SEO. I had been looking for you for six years at my previous agency and there are so few of you. It is insane! I think it’s incredibly powerful to find content marketers like you who have that because it’s just like a hybrid superpower. So, hopefully, we can work together in the future.

Andra Zaharia: Thank you so much!

Britney Muller: Seriously, I mean it! That is so refreshing to hear! There are not enough of you – we need to clone you! I feel like you hit it on the head with accessibility factors, and a lot of that today stems from lighthouse reports for text size contrast, image alt text – which was originally created for the visually impaired and still is used for readers that help visually impaired individuals consume content on the web. And so, while these things might not be so important for ranking or marketing or any of that stuff, it’s incredibly important for accessibility and I guarantee you that Google acknowledges that and they want to provide websites that are accessible to people. Absolutely! So, it is very, very important. And oh, I love what you said about providing different ways to consume content – this is so important and always has been and I feel like a lot of people in websites are waking up to it; it’s this whole notion of, again, you have to meet the audience where they’re at.

Britney Muller: And so, oftentimes, like for Whiteboard Friday, I gave this huge push and people listening may have noticed this – last year and the year before, we had just an audio version of the Whiteboard Friday because I kept pushing for it. I was like, “You don’t know where these people are to whether it’d be on the bus and maybe they don’t want to read the whole thing or they don’t want to use up the Wi-Fi or their data on watching a video. We’ve got to provide different options to easily consume it and we have the audio in the video. Why not just apply it here?” And so, exactly what you said: you don’t know whether someone’s walking to work, you don’t know whether someone wants to consume it this way or that way, and so, giving them options is incredibly powerful for retaining a larger percentage of the audience on your site. I think it’s a beautiful way to look at content, and it’s also a beautiful way to repurpose things. So yeah, I think that cannot be stressed enough.

Britney Muller: And similarly to providing different options for consuming, you should absolutely be repurposing top-performing content. I always say top-performing content, because why not start with what’s currently working for your website? And so, oftentimes, you know what ranks well, you know what pages convert the most people to whatever it is you’re trying to do and there’s no reason why you can’t take those pages, and create visual elements to a SlideShare or, like I said, a YouTube video or maybe a Pinterest board. Explore these other platforms and have fun with them – and then evaluate what worked and what didn’t.

Britney Muller: I know this was something I did back in, probably, 2012-2013 for a stem cell replacement therapy doctor – and so, these are adult stem cells that you can get from your own body, but it’s very medically technical and intimidating content. And so, my team and I thought, “Why don’t we just turn this into a really beautiful, easy-to-consume slideshow? Like, on a SlideShare. And so, we uploaded it to SlideShare and we kept doing that, and then we turned it into YouTube videos, but when we came back to the drawing board, we saw, “Oh my gosh! We’re getting such a large percentage of traffic from SlideShare specifically!” And it was ranking so well for things that their website couldn’t rank for. So, it was expanding the acquisition funnel for this client in ways we never saw before. And it was doing it in the most beautiful of ways because the traffic they were getting from SlideShare were highly qualified – they stayed on the site the longest, they converted the highest. So, I think it’s constantly reevaluating and pivoting based on what’s working well, and what’s not.

Andra Zaharia: It makes such a difference! Plus, you get to see how people use your content in different contexts. I love that, and I love advocating for font size and for contrast, and I’m always telling people, “Just imagine you’re walking down the street and you’ve had a long day and your eyes are strained. You do not want to look at this. This is not going to work.” And sometimes you have to get subjective to get people’s attention, just to put them in the user’s shoes for a bit, so they can experience that frustration or annoyance that we get. And then, people get it.

Britney Muller: That is such a great example! It’s also so important why you have to make your content scannable. You absolutely have to! It should be available to people on the run or just wanting to get the quick takeaways. And one of my favorite examples of this – and funny enough, the founder of this does not like me, particularly, which, you know, to each their own; he told me I can’t write, but that’s a whole other story. So copyblogger.com, I’ve always said this, they do a beautiful job of providing content where you can literally just kind of skim the article and you get all of the key takeaways and you really feel like you understood what it was you were trying to get across. And I think that is another take on accessibility for people that are in a hurry. I mean, our attention span continues to decline, people continue to consume content on their mobile phones and in different use cases, so I think considering those things as well. And I’m curious to get your take – are there any other accessibility factors that you’re particularly aware of and advocating for these days?

Andra Zaharia: I really try to make UX as simple as possible. And in terms of content, especially, I try to weave everything really well together. And that includes, of course, internal linking. But it’s not only that – it’s trying to just mix and match everything that the user would need on a page or be very clear about what resources they could go deeper into if they want to expand their understanding or knowledge of one topic – and that means connecting the blog to the website much better, it means embedding videos and audio and so much of this and not leaving them fragmented and stranded somewhere hoping that someone at some point comes across them naturally because it doesn’t and I love when I get the whole package. And I want to be able to deliver that, as well, for my readers, hopefully.

Britney Muller: That is so beautifully said! Oh my gosh, can I hire you? That is what I’m talking about! Again, it’s thinking of the user – it’s user-first marketing and I absolutely love what you said with follow-up resources and looking at a particular piece of content and thinking, “What are the logical next steps? What is the particular call to action? What makes sense for the user in that moment?”

Andra Zaharia: Yes! Well, I learned so much from you and I learned so much from Rand and from Moz, so I’m very thankful for that because it became part of how I’m able to do work today. So, you played a big role in my development! So thank you for that!

Britney Muller: My work here is done, people!

Andra Zaharia: We talked a lot about everything that goes into SEO and there’s so much of it and all the elements depend on each other, and I feel like this is a metaphor for how the world works and sometimes we see it in our jobs, but we don’t see it at a global scale, and now we see it everywhere. I mean, this interdependence is vital to us. So, obviously, SEO success depends on collaboration with developers and content creators and a bunch of other roles and companies. How do you go about building that trust in a remote context, where people work from around the world? Because I feel like it’s a bit more challenging now to go and advocate for a certain project, for a certain take on things or experiments. So, how do you do that? Where do you start building their trust and getting people excited about what they can achieve together?

Britney Muller: Yeah, I’m so glad you asked that because I feel like it’s a really important part of just being effective – it’s 10 times more difficult when you’re doing it remotely. It’s definitely a lot easier to walk into situations or be able to have face to face conversations where you can more easily read and understand people. I think, oftentimes, the initial part of the remote aspect is, like what you said earlier, is building that trust. And I find that that comes with just bringing your authentic self to work, bringing your authentic self into meetings, and not trying to dance around something or say that you can do something that you’re not totally comfortable with or whatever that might be.

Britney Muller: And oftentimes, I know at least for me, it’s admitting what I don’t know, and the limitations of different particular parts of my research – I’m just being real, upfront, and honest about them with that, and I think that cultivates a sense of trust that I’m not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. I want to be on the same page, I want us to make these decisions together, and I think that really starts from building that foundational trust and rapport with individuals and also just really better understanding their roles – whoever your point person is – and how you can continue to deliver surprise and value to them goes extremely far.

Britney Muller: And also I know with working with developers, it’s really about communicating how implementing whether it’d be SEO improvements or something like schema markup, is going to improve the perceived quality of their work, and it will be more effective. And a lot of times, too, with the more technical SEO stuff, I actually love working with developers on that, because that’s a beautiful opportunity for collaboration, where if I go to a developer on a website, and I say, “Hey, I found these 5000 pages that are really low thin-quality pages, I would like them to be deindexed – and what I mean by that is implementing these meta robots tags – but, I don’t know the best way to do that; you know the website far better than I do and maybe you have a better idea for how to most effectively implement something like this.” And then it becomes a collaboration, and I think that’s where the best work is done. And not only does collaboration make an SEO and a website way more efficient, but you also get to share the wins, which I don’t think we do enough. Like, when things start to improve, it’s so fun to be able to email the developers and the in-house marketers and people and just be like, “You guys are killing it! Look at this! This looks so good. You’re getting this.” And I think that’s also an important part of building that team and building that momentum for future work.

Andra Zaharia: It so is, and I feel like we should all be reminding each other of these wins because we need them – we need them to build energy, we need them to be just connected to the results of our work and sometimes there’s such a long way and there are so many projects happening at once that you get disconnected from that end result. And just sharing a PrintScreen of someone’s feedback or comment or things like that, they go such a long way, so I’m really, really glad you’re setting this tremendous example for how to work with people because that’s such a big thing right now. It’s going to become even more important as we have these virtual interactions that we need to learn how to navigate and still be ourselves in the process.

Britney Muller: Totally, totally! Yeah, I could not agree with that more! I was just thinking, looping back to what I had just briefly and weirdly touched on earlier with the Brian Clark copyblogger story, I think having an understanding of empathy and having a perspective of being aware when something happens or something comes at you, and having the know-it-all to understand when it’s not you. So, I think, for that particular situation, which was very public and a lot of people are aware of what went down – and it’s funny, I love Brian Clark; I think he does amazing work. To this day, I constantly joke about sending him flowers or something because I feel like his incredibly harsh criticism really lit a fire under me, and also taught me – this was, oh my gosh, probably three and a half years ago or so – and it really was sort of an interesting perspective to understand that you can handle so much more than you think you can, and having the empathy and the understanding of why these things come about because a person is just deeply uncomfortable with something that is currently happening. I mean, we all do this, right? We’re the harshest on the people we love the most and the people we’re closest with because we can’t wrestle with things that we’re dealing with sometimes and we take it out on people.

Britney Muller: And I’m not speaking for him or saying that’s exactly what happened but I think having empathy for whatever that might have been for the other individual – and in this case, it was someone I deeply, deeply admired, and particularly admired his work and his writing, and his team and all this stuff – and to hear a particular hero of yours that you admire for writing, tell you that you are a shit writer is incredibly hard to swallow and wrestle with. Oftentimes, things like that can be debilitating. We get paralyzed by this fear of not meeting other people’s expectations. And especially when it comes from someone you so deeply admire, for whatever reason, it cuts so much deeper. I think I tell the story just because you’re going to encounter stuff like that; you’re going to encounter people saying deeply horrible things to you. If you’re putting yourself out there online, if you’re trying to create content, if you’re trying to move to the next level, it’s not without these obstacles. I think, in one essence, it means you’re on the right track – like Ryan Holiday’s book that I absolutely loved, “The Obstacle is the Way” and I could not agree more.

Britney Muller: And actually, I had a friend during that whole time when this was happening, and he goes, “You know what? This is the best thing that’s ever going to happen to you.” He just turned it, and I was like, “Yeah, yeah! I’m going to prove it wrong. And it’s okay. I don’t have to worry about this stuff so much.” I think you’re going to encounter obstacles, you’re going to encounter critiques from people you work with, or edits or pushback or failure, or just even mistakes here and there, and I think that should not deter you from staying on path and continuing to try to create positive change. Because I think, again, it means you’re on the right path, and you have to embrace that. And especially in this situation and in this environment, it’s something that none of us can change. It’s deeply painful to deal with the day to day statistics and all of those things, but if we can just really surrender to it and welcome the discomfort and roll with it, you’re going to be so much more effective and your mental health and your internal life are going to be so much better off because of it, too.

Andra Zaharia: I so deeply love everything you said right now. It spoke to me so much! I had a similar experience at some point with someone I really admire who told me that a certain job, it only seemed like it was too much for you, and I carried that with me for such a long time, but it actually helped me realize, just sitting with that – because there’s nowhere to go – just helped me realize that I needed a different way to work because I was trying to fit someone else’s pattern that didn’t really fit my needs, and changing that simply accelerated everything towards a more positive place where I can be myself. And so, I love that you’re sharing this. I know it’s so deeply personal, I know that it’s difficult to talk about this and I hope you keep telling this story simply because it’s proof of self-empathy and the fact that we can take from these harsh critiques or whatever they may be, whatever form they may take. I love doing yoga with Adriene, which is like super big on YouTube, and she has this thing where she says, “Take what you need, leave what you don’t.” And I feel like that’s such a good just general rule for getting feedback because if you know how to get feedback, then you’re going to get better at giving feedback.

Britney Muller: Absolutely! I could not agree more! And I think those of us that are very serious about our professional and personal growth, crave that feedback. I know I do. Like, I want to be better. Especially after talks or a particular piece of content, if you can email me how I could improve, I will have so much respect for you. So, I think, yeah, that kind of comes with the territory as well, but all that is so beautiful! I love how you said that!

Andra Zaharia: I feel like this conversation could go into many, many directions, and I would absolutely love to hopefully maybe do this again sometimes because I feel like there’s so much more to dig into from your experience.

Britney Muller: There’s so much more! I know! I’m already thinking of all these other things. That is so amazing!

Andra Zaharia: That’s good because something that I particularly loved about doing this entire season that’s focused on empathy and talking to you and talking to everyone else who was part of this season is the fact that it became such a powerful source of energy because it triggers those super powerful and positive emotions inside of us and that kind of overflows toward everyone who’s listening. For me, it had an effect that lasted for weeks and weeks, and it just gets reactivated each time I listen to it. Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask, what do you think makes empathy timeless for us, generally, as humans and maybe for your work as well?

Britney Muller: I love that question! I think what makes empathy timeless really revolves around the connectivity of it and how that’s never going away. We are going to continue to need to connect with other people for all sorts of reasons and the more effectively that you can do that, the more powerful you become. And one quick last story is I’ve just been thinking about this so much, and before the lockdown occurred, I was in Colorado staying with a really good friend of mine, Paul Dowel – and he owns this really incredible eCommerce clothing brand called Tall T Productions. And if you’ve ever watched X Games or the Winter Olympics, you’ve seen his clothes. And he just does incredible stuff. He’s widely known in the ski – snowboard industry. We were chatting about all of this that’s going on and how disruptive and strange and how do you market in a time like this? How do you navigate? What does this look like? And he has such a close relationship with his customers, which is unbelievable because they’re all over the world, and he was playing around with this idea of sending this mass text message to all of his customers and he was playing around with a couple of different ways he could maybe offer a tiny bit of something or do something and he finally was just like, “It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel right. It just feels awful.”

Britney Muller: And so, he ended up sending a message out that was something like, “I know this is a really strange time for everyone. Just know that myself and the entire company are really thinking of all of you and we hope that you’re keeping your chins up.” And that was just so Paul and so sweet and genuine and coming from the most beautiful place of him sincerely caring and thinking about his customers and doing nothing more – no selling, no nothing – and it was literally just that connection. And he received something like 600 replies from individual customers where they can text back. He sat down, within that day, and made a custom reply to every single one of those 600 people. I mean, it just blew my mind and he has no idea how good of a natural marketer he even is. And I’m like, “Oh my god! I travel the world, I speak on stages with the best eCommerce or marketers. Paul, this is marketing! This is Will Reynold’s real company shit. This is unbelievable!” And some of them were not short. Do you know I mean? And they know that this is coming from the CEO, the founder of this huge company.

Britney Muller: I think about it all the time and I’ve been telling this story all the time, because it just goes back to that connecting and to what you said earlier about how essential it is to deeply understand your customers and what they want and just connecting with them on a deeper level that is beyond the brand, beyond the message, beyond anything that’s just at a very human level. And you know, with what Paul did, he did see a spike in sales. He wasn’t going after that and he sincerely spent an entire day – his fingers were about to fall off, but it was just the most beautiful example that I have seen of marketing in a time like this, and it was done so naturally. And Rand alludes to that, too, in his writing about reading the room and dealing with this crisis – really come to it with the help-first mentality. What is it within your means that you can provide right now? Don’t even think about selling or any of those aspects. Lead with that help-first mentality – and I think that is what’s going to take people so far throughout this whole climate in the next several months.

Andra Zaharia: It absolutely is, and you rounded up this entire conversation perfectly. This example is absolutely fantastic, and sometimes all we need is that feeling of connection with others, feeling less alone, feeling seen, feeling recognized and acknowledged – and that makes all the difference and it’s also the basis of these powerful relationships that we need to move things forward whatever may happen. I think it’s the only reliable thing that we have, to know that we can trust and depend on each other. So, thank you for giving us all your beautiful personal perspectives and your experience. I feel like I do see SEO in a way through your eyes that I’ve never seen it before through anyone else – and I love that you’re bringing this to the community and that you brought this to this show, as well. So, thank you so much, Britney!

Britney Muller: Thank you so much for having me! I really appreciate it. Best questions ever!

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Andra Zaharia
As a driven doer and curious content creator, Andra Zaharia has been honing her skills by working with companies and teams who always strive to do their best work. Spending over a decade in digital marketing taught her that people, their mindset, and habits are at the core of high-impact initiatives and projects. To find out what motivates high performers to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible, Andra has interviewed over 100 experts from tech, marketing, eCommerce, business, and creative industries.

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