As an industry, we talk a good game about collaboration, but the truth is it’s not really happening the way we tell our clients and bosses it happens. We stroll into new business pitches and make big claims about how “integrated” we are. We preach that our recommendations are better because we have a more “holistic” offering. But whether it’s across agencies working on the same client, different teams working within the same agency, or different teams in-house on the client side, collaboration is much harder to achieve in reality than we make it look on the outside.
More often than not, experts get sucked into their respective silos, buried by the day-to-day task lists of their jobs, focusing on their own areas of expertise. Agencies write SEO scopes and PPC scopes separately, often without accounting for content resource needs to make the channels successful. Teams bring recommendations forward to their bosses that don’t have buy-in from their peers. We don’t bring each other in, but we complain about not being brought in.
My company has gone through many mergers and acquisitions over the years, and just in the last three, we’ve merged with three other agencies in our network. We doubled in size and tripled our global footprint overnight. With those mergers came tons of complementary skill sets and client lists we could do great work for.
Through the mergers, we had a unique opportunity presented to us to solve persistent collaboration and content problems by bringing the organic search, paid search, and performance content teams together under one unified group. Now our “Discoverability” group is nearly 35 people in four offices across North America.
With all this change and merging of teams, we had some hard choices to make and hard work to do to make this integration of different capabilities and cultures successful.
I want to introduce you to the concept of interdisciplinarity.
It’s an academic term describing when two or more areas of expertise join forces to solve new kinds of problems together. It’s when they combine and bust traditional silos to solve shared challenges, benefiting from integrating and updating their individual approaches into a new, holistic approach. Interdisciplinarity helps with the negative effects of siloing and over-specialization.
In the rapidly evolving and increasingly commoditized field of search, we need to be talking about this.
Interdisciplinarity is common in well-known technical and scientific fields like neuroscience, biochemistry, and cybernetics. There is new ground to be forged in our industry.
There is a key difference between complementarity and interdisciplinarity. Just about anyone can go online and learn SEO or PPC. Plenty of companies do “complementary” search work — sitting next to one another and at least not harming each other’s work.
But few do truly interdisciplinary work — offering new, evolved capabilities in search. In the next five years, interdisciplinarity will be the difference between search teams with a competitive edge, and search teams that stagnate.
True interdisciplinarity is when the sum of the whole is greater than its parts. It’s the Gestalt benefit of bringing distinct specialties together to create a completely custom solution for a problem. People with relevant expertise bring unique knowledge and experiences for a more cohesive, end-to-end offering that is bespoke for each need. But the work is repeatable and refinable as similar problems arise.
This concept has been a driving force guiding our way through merging teams to create something new. And now we consult with clients in complex organizations to help them achieve interdisciplinarity, too. This is more than enhancing our implementation of tactical SEO and PPC. This is about helping companies evolve how they think about and deliver on the promise of search.
As a search professional, you have probably been perfectly smart and successful independently, so why go to the trouble of moving away from separate swim lanes to one cohesive, unified practice? And equally important, how?
The majority of our growth typically comes from better serving and expanding existing relationships, not winning big chunks of new business. You go from a select few team members on different teams advocating for their own work, to a combined force of all the team members advocating for all of each other’s work.
An integrated search team finds it easier to cross-sell and up-sell when clients get stuck on related services. Merging our teams helps us shift budget seamlessly between practices based on demand, pilot other services to our clients, and show our chops and prove outcomes we can earn. We can also talk to our clients about capturing every opportunity possible on whole search engine results pages, instead of thinking of SERPs in chunks.
Having an integrated team with areas of overlap allows leaders to better distribute labor across the team. For example, our performance content team now writes SEO metas and PPC ad copy. Our paid and organic search teams are conducting keyword research and competitive analysis together, reducing duplication of effort. We’re dividing and conquering to cover more research ground more quickly, share learnings from our own areas of expertise, delivering a stronger product, and speeding it up by weeks.
Data-sharing becomes second-nature to an integrated search and content team. It helps you to find opportunities you wouldn’t have spotted before. A deeper and wider pool of knowledge builds a deeper and smarter search talent bench. This creates a culture of crowd-sourcing and sharing where no one feels the pressure to know everything. We solve digital marketing problems faster by pooling our knowledge.
When individual teams have individual objectives, it runs the risk of being “every team for themselves.” But ultimately, everyone in the company or at the agency is held to a set of central, core objectives. A unified team can help search and content practitioners stop worrying about whose budgets and whose targets, and instead focus on what’s best for the business. It allows you to steer resources to where the greatest impact will be felt. It doesn’t matter so much which channels deliver — as long as we deliver.
Recommendations have more weight and credibility together when they’re vetted from multiple experts. Experts should talk about joint opportunities, discuss how channels perform together and separately, and balance paid and organic recommendations. A more thoughtful, utilitarian approach is more easily defensible to a client. Demonstrating more bang for their marketing bucks makes it easier for them to say yes and invest.
When you integrate different specialties, you are likely to develop new capabilities at the intersections between those practices. This enables you to build and launch new, unified services that increase the value we can add for clients. In our case, this led to an end-to-end digital shelf optimization offering and enhanced landing page development.
True interdisciplinarity is difficult to accomplish, so it’s hard for competitors to replicate. Competitive advantage happens when you put in the legwork that competitors can’t, don’t, or won’t. Mastering integrated services can give you unique points of distinction that competitors don’t have, and you become increasingly indispensable to your clients and your company.
There will be no shortage of risks, roadblocks, and obstacles to integrating teams. Following are some of the growing pains you can anticipate as a driver of change.
We deceive ourselves into thinking we collaborate well for so long that it’s easy to become complacent and fail to see how things could be better. We have to make the case for the benefits of working together to our colleagues and counterparts. As a group, we have to agree on the importance of collaborating on projects and proving joint outcomes with meaningful case studies. It’s a massive cultural shift to change from individual athletes on three different teams to a single, all-star, world champion team. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Counterintuitively, the larger the team, the harder it is to collaborate. This is especially true when the team does several different things. Integration runs the risk of making your group too big to move quickly. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to force adoption of one team or the other’s way of doing things, or to collaborate constantly on everything. But we quickly learned that design-by-committee doesn’t work and we can’t force it. Group identity doesn’t negate the need for autonomy. In fact, interdisciplinary teams fail without being able to maintain their identity and autonomy, and being empowered to make decisions that are right for their team and clients. Now we keep the connective tissue that bonds us as a group, but allow for “slicing and dicing” into smaller teams to serve any need and combat the problem of getting too big to stay nimble.
When integrating teams, conflicts are inevitable, whether it’s perceived competition for diminishing budgets, or vying for the final say on a course of action. With teams of very smart people in different areas there is bound to be some negotiating of roles, maybe even turf-defending. But through integration, we’re all sharing the same turf. It takes extra effort to give the benefit of the doubt, assume good intent, and get on the same page. It’s an exercise in humility to give everyone’s expertise equal weight, and actively seek perspective instead of it being an accidental afterthought. You have to create a culture where everyone wins when one of us wins.
Merging processes that worked reasonably well before is a common challenge. Each team had its own comfortable way of doing things, so they might be resistant and slow to change. You may encounter conflicting expertise and opinions. It’s important to understand each team’s processes thoroughly before ripping them apart and sewing them back together — take the time to learn why things are the way they are.
A constant barrage of non-stop change makes it hard for evolution to stick. It’s too much for people to absorb and adopt. It causes them to burn out and lose interest because it feels like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. Companies that have a culture of ongoing testing, learning and optimization and where change is always expected for growth tend to fare well in the face of change, but everyone has their limits.
Now that you are going into the process of integrating other teams informed on the risks and rewards, here are tactical tips to get it right.
Search team leaders should move quickly to announce the change and inform their teams. Make it clear what you’re doing and why, make the case for the benefits, and be honest about the challenges to get buy-in. Get the teams involved in the mission as soon as possible. Set the expectation that we sink or swim together. The most successful people in the face of change are those who don’t waste time obstructing the inevitable, but instead roll up their sleeves and look for ways to help.
Once announced, quickly take action to bring the teams together and activate. Get search and content practitioners in the room face-to-face as early and often as possible, and start a dialogue about a common mission and vision. Work together to brainstorm ideas on how to move forward. Our integration sessions included introductions and ice-breakers, overarching sessions about the department and teams, capability and case study sharing, and team-building exercises. Once you have established the new team or process, reintroduce the team to the organization to put faces with names, and educate others on what the new group is capable of and responsible for.
Announce and immerse quickly, but slow down to speed up when beginning to implement the changes. Don’t try to boil the ocean — focus on one-percent changes, one change at a time at natural points of intersection. Give ownership of different initiatives to people from each side to make sure you’re considering all the angles, which helps with buy-in across the group. Charge everyone with making it successful.
Also, try to make early changes iteratively and at natural points of friction at first, so change actually feels like a relief. For example, every SEO can relate to being left out of the content process, where keyword research is an afterthought (if it happens at all). One simple change is adding keywords and questions to a new content brief prior to creating content. This will make both writers’ and SEOs’ jobs easier. As a bonus, small wins can build momentum and endurance for more change.
Process is supposed to be a flexible framework, not a rigid set of rules that stifles innovation. Commit to establishing clear processes that incorporate key search and content stakeholders, and bring those voices to the table to collaborate in creating and refining workflows. Create a living wiki to document recurring processes, which reinforces the message of steady evolution. Update and reorganize them regularly — everyone on the team should have access and trust to refine them. Finally, check in periodically on what isn’t working and discard what doesn’t serve you.
Conduct cross-trainings both in immersion and continuously over time. The intent is not to be able to do each other’s jobs, but rather to be able to speak about them, advocate for them and cross-sell them. We’ve done workshops, hands-on training, and even short-term job swaps like having SEOs write e-commerce product detail pages. It creates empathy and builds trust, and makes it easier to advocate for each other’s work. It helps create mental checks, too, for search experts to ask, “Am I including the right people?” or content writers to ask, “Can someone else add value here?” Make it a habit for your group by course-correcting people when they forget, and validating and rewarding when they get it right.
As your search and content (or other integrated) team develops all-new joint services and processes, appoint small, cross-team committees to productize those offerings. They should clearly articulate the service, define the value, identify inputs and outputs, and ballpark costs and timing. These should be simple packages that can be “pulled off the shelf” when a relevant opportunity arises. For our team, these included things like search-driven content insights to support big burst campaigns, an end-to-end e-commerce discoverability process, and a meticulous approach to website rebuilds and redesigns.
Integrated search and content teams should be recommending and reporting together. It sounds obvious, but it’s rarely done well. Too often, experts regurgitate data in a silo and then smash some slideware together. Instead, compile and discuss your data together to identify the story the information tells, and how clients and marketers can make decisions across channels to best optimize. Search and content practitioners should be working together to roadmap and prioritize where to focus for the biggest opportunities, rather than one channel dictating to the other or operating on independent tracks.
It’s easy to retire to our individual corners and get stuck in the status quo, where search and content teams don’t talk to each other. These account strategy sessions are bigger than a task list — they are a time to collaborate, share what’s happening, and talk about the future. Discuss how the brand is performing in each channel, problems the search and content experts are solving, opportunities we see, big risks or threats, and potential joint efforts, tests, or case studies. This simple meet-up model can benefit any group you’re trying to collaborate with. Establish recurring round tables between search and other departments or global regions.
As your teams grow in size, geography, and complexity, a “networked team” model might make sense. A networked team has central sources of truth and process (we document ours on Confluence in living wikis), but the operations and execution are decentralized. In this model you have common standards and best practices that all practitioners can draw from, but a networked team can shapeshift and adjust to deliver the work however necessary. It’s a balance of centralized control and local team empowerment.
When merging search and content teams, coaching and direct, immediate feedback greatly speeds integration. Make transparency and accountability a part of your group’s culture. This means providing feedback to each other and feedback to you. It means peer reviewing each other’s search and content work. It means scrutinizing your shared processes and ways of working. It makes the discoverability work stronger and reduces the margin for error. Creating a culture of feedback depersonalizes the feedback and makes it about the quality of the work.
Marketing success can be a major driver of integration across discoverability teams. You should always look for wins (or warnings) to create case studies that demonstrate how your team is most effective together. Find meaningful wins that cross teams, and make sure your team, clients, bosses, and colleagues hear these stories. It increases buy-in, understanding, and engagement with your newly integrated group.
Who you “sit with” matters — even in a world where a majority of us are now working from home. Connect your search and content experts as much as possible. Make it easy to strike up a conversation about things they’re working on, and turn around their chairs (or turn on their video chat) and ask questions of each other. While rearranging the floorplan at the office isn’t in the cards for everyone, or if people in different cities or companies are collaborating, look for every possible opportunity for human connection. That means video chat, traveling for in-person meetings, desk drive-bys, spending part of your day parked with colleagues in their part of the office, real-time instant messaging, or phone calls. Do whatever it takes to be present and engaged with people in other disciplines as much as possible.
To quote my colleague, Britt Hankins, “As individual teams, we’re experts. As an integrated practice, we’re a powerhouse.”
Creating whole, end-to-end services that have greater impact together than separately makes us more indispensable to clients who can’t imagine going back to the disjointed world of silos. Combining and evolving our search and content capabilities into one discoverability group helps us stand out from the competition.
The cultural shift can be huge, but worth it. It’s an iterative process with plenty of growing pains along the way. Even if it doesn’t make sense to reorganize or merge teams, it does make sense to break down barriers between other disciplines. These steps can help integrate search with any other department. It could be as simple as creating a competency circle around a certain type of work or client that transcends your org chart.
As time goes on, new things are created, the group and its processes mature, and the lines between them start to blur. When your new culture is established, hire and promote for the traits to sustain it, like communication, collaboration, accountability, transparency, and empathy.
There will always be bumps along the way as you integrate search with other practices like content, technology, analytics, or user experience. It can be frustrating and time-consuming up front. People won’t always agree and conflicts will happen.
But as a leader of discoverability in your organization, you can create a culture of openness, vulnerability, and feedback. You can create the expectation of iteration, evolution, and change. You can push through obstacles together and forge something entirely new.
Remember that competitive advantage comes from doing the work your competitors can’t, don’t, or won’t. Because if it were easy, everyone would do it.