Ray van Hilst is Director of Client Results at Yoko Co, a web design and marketing agency with a mission to help organizations “Do good. Better.”
Ray blends 20+ years of marketing experience with modern web principles to create high-value websites that help organizations meet their goals. His diverse background includes Fortune 500 brands such as Disney and The Home Depot and non-profits and associations including the National Wildlife Federation, the American Institute of Architects (AIA), American Association of Endodontists, National Association of Attorneys General, and many more.
Ray works with clients to set the strategic direction for their website and online marketing by helping them get beyond the “wouldn’t it be great if” conversations to the place of “this is what we should do.” He offers clients strategic consultation on web development, content strategy, creative direction, and on-going web operations.
Ray is a frequent speaker about web strategy, web operations, and marketing technology. He is also an active member of ASAE: The American Society of Association Executives. When he’s not thinking about the web, Ray is a husband, father, outdoor enthusiast, and aspiring musician.
agency that works with organizations that are motivated with a mission beyond profit, or as I put it, I reached into my drawer this morning, grabbed my appropriately branded apparel, that we like to help organizations do good, better. So, I came to you branded today, so we work with organizations that are like non-profits associations that are representing well in the world or doing things.
And even for-profit companies the main thing that we look for is how are you making our society and our world a better place. We fundamentally believe that your web presence is particular in the world of COVID, it’s the single biggest lever you can use to make a positive impact, and we help organizations do that.
Jonathan Denwood: That sounds great. And I’ve got my co-host, Steven. Steven, would you like to quickly introduce yourself to the new listeners and viewers?
Steven Sauder: Yeah. My name is Steven Sauder; I’m from zipfish.io, where we make WordPress fast by optimizing the code on the server and the code that powers your WordPress site.
Jonathan Denwood: That’s great. And before we go into the main part of the interview, folks, I just want to talk about one of our major sponsors and that’s Kinsta hosting, Kinsta hosting is a WordPress-only hosting provider. It has all the modern technology, like the latest versions of PHB, one button backup, you name it, they provide it, and they also provide the performance that you need, not only for yourself, but for your clients, especially if you have a WooCommerce, a learning management system, or a membership website.
If that sounds interesting, go over to Kinsta, have a look at one of their plans, I suggest that you should buy one of them. And if you do, please do the show favor and tell Kinsta that you heard about them on the WP-Tonic Show, it really helps Kinsta and it really does help support WP-Tonic. So, Ray, we discussed membership and engagement trends, so I don’t know what to start the conversation on really. So, let’s go for a broad topic, engagement. So, can you give a kind of hundred-foot look over how you see engagement and how you see the trends changing?
Ray van Hilst: Yeah, that’s a great question and a great place to start. So, I’ll qualify that half of our work is with associations that are doing a lot of education and training and learning and engagement is a big part of what we work with our clients on. There is an association for everything, I learned recently about the mushroom association, so there’s one of those out there and just to be meta, I belong [Cross-Talking 03:43].
Jonathan Denwood: I’m a member.
Ray van Hilst: I choose to be Meta, I belong to the association for associations, The American Society of Association Executives, and so we see a lot of trends within that. So, if you think about what an association does, it represents an industry or a specialty or purpose, like your plumber, your doctor, any doctor you go to is going to belong to that organization that represents their specialty and advocates on behalf of it. But the big thing that a lot of associations do that we can apply to your listeners is they do education and information and best practices.
And one of the trends that we’ve really seen through the COVID pandemic, and this is across all of our association clients, is that interest in continuing education has gone up across the board. That’s a trend that we’ve seen now, some of this might be early in the pandemic, particularly when hospitals were shut down and people couldn’t go to work and medical providers still needed to get their continuing education because you need that for your license.
So, they’re like, look, I’m at home, I’m not doing anything, let’s crank out my CE, and get that logged as we go through that. But as hospitals have opened up and as things have returned to the relatively new normal, we see trends across our clients of people looking at like, how do I make myself relevant in this new economy? How do I pick up new skills? I want to be in an industry, or maybe I want to level up in the industry I’m in, let’s take some continuing education courses and those are offered.
So, we’re seeing a lot of traffic into that across our clients, people looking for certifications, people looking for courses on things and stuff like that. And that’s a trend that we’ve seen is driving a lot of revenue for those organizations, and the nice thing about that is that delivers a value that increases engagement with the organization.
Steven Sauder: Interesting. So, does that usually take form in some sort of LMS, like a learning management type system? Is that usually like the end result, when somebody comes to you and says, hey, I want those kinds of a whole training system that usually kind of looks like that?
Ray van Hilst: Exactly. And usually, the flow that we’re seeing is, so if it’s an existing member or existing customer of an organization they’re coming into the website looking for information, they are taking that course in an LMS and then that transaction. So, the course is being managed there and then it’s being updated in their member database record, so associations all use a piece of technology called an association management system.
It remembers when did you pay dues? What courses did you take? What are your certifications, all that kind of stuff? So, it’s happening over there, but we use the website to try to market that and get the user in, to make that content search engine friendly, tie it from other content because for example, if you think about the flow of the way a user comes into the site, they may be doing a search for certification, like I want to get certified on X, Y, Z.
Well, let’s have that call to action, like, here’s your flow, here’s your process, sign up for the courses, and, oh, by the way, if you become a member, you get half off.
Steven Sauder: Got it. So, kind of like the whole call to action or sales funnels, if you will let’s say if I’m a mushroom the mushroom association, I have an expert mushroom hunter course that you can take. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but it should be, I would like to know how to find mushrooms, you would create the sales funnel that would say, hey, people are going to be searching for this skill set or searching for certification in this. And then you use the payment gateway as a way to sell that membership along with that course kind of bundle those two things together.,
Ray van Hilst: Bundle them together. And even if you have resources within your website that are members-only like your beginner’s guide to mushroom hunting, we’ll just keep using them as our example, that might be a free resource for members. So, that login required page is going to come up, that’s always an opportunity to convert that member and to say, hey, if you were a member, you would be getting this free or this is a member-exclusive content, or as you go through that.
So, looking at what are those tipping points within the engagement that we can either move someone from a casual, to an invested level of engagement. And when we do our mapping out of that journey for our clients, we go all the way from someone that just gets the emails and opens them and doesn’t think about it all the way up to the evangelist. Who’s volunteering on committees and boards and teaching courses as well.
Steven Sauder: Yeah. So, if a customer comes to you or a client comes to you and they’re like, hey, I want to build this thing. Are they looking to generate revenue from the course itself? Or is it more always about, I want more members; let’s try to get people in the membership. What do you prioritize?
Ray van Hilst: That is a super important question for all sorts of organizations with how the pandemic has affected things. So, the big shift that we have seen associations, there’s the way they make their money is they have dues, they used to have meetings and the meetings went away. So, now they’re trying to all do virtual events but the shift that we’re seeing is like, if you’ve produced a virtual event like you’ve done that work, let’s have that have a life beyond and turn that into that continuing education content, get it into your LMS.
And now just keep feeding that as you go. We’ve also seen many of our clients as well, they’ve had to shift their business model, we work with several speakers and they can no longer go on the road and go get their $20,000 speaker fees, but they still have good content.
Steven Sauder: Get a new Avenue to monetize that or maybe distribute it.
Ray van Hilst: Exactly. So, we have a couple of clients, we set up LearnDash for them, helped them build up courses in that, go through that, and basically pivot the business model.
Steven Sauder: Yeah, that’s smart. Overall our associates and those kinds of sites that have these membership ideas, are they seeing their memberships grow a lot right now? Or are they seeing their membership shrink? Because people are like, oh, we’re not doing the in-person meetings, we’re not doing those; things that we’re adding value. Are you going online to hedge and keep your current members or the members increasing because there’re more people just online looking for things?
Ray van Hilst: It’s a little bit of both, it depends on it. So, you have a lot of organizations, for example, like scientific societies; if you have any friends that are scientists you know that there’s the publisher parish model within your career. And the way scientists publish their content is they go to a conference that’s every other year, and I do my poster sessions and stuff like that. And those types of organizations have had cyclical like I joined so I get a discount to the conference, I lapse, and three years later, I want to go to the conference again.
So, I join again and lapse, so, they’ve had these cyclical memberships. We’re working with clients to try to turn that into a more ongoing thing, like, hey, don’t let your membership lapse; here’s what you’re going to get, you get publishing opportunities and continuing education. Depending on the industry, around where the membership goes, it kind of depends on what’s happening with people in the industry.
So, a lot of organizations are offering hardship cases, hardship dues, so, if laid off we’re going to give you a six month grace period, but then there are other organizations that are doing well and they’re seeing their members grow as people look for that training and those connections around that.
Steven Sauder: Yeah. Are those following any lines like the associations and organizations that are doing well versus the ones that are struggling or is it much more of how they’ve positioned themselves in the market from five years ago to now?
Ray van Hilst: That’s a great question. So, one of them is a matter of positioning, but the other one really that we see comes down to the level of marketing and technology maturity. So, how much are you leaning into your tech stack to drive your business, and do you have business goals and are you nimble enough to actually respond to those trends? So, for example, are you locked into an LMS that can’t scale, that you can’t add courses quickly too, or a website that you can’t add landing pages and stuff like that?
And a lot of that comes down to, I hate to say IT maturity, but nowadays marketing and IT are so intertwined. They used to say, I’m a digital marketer, well, we’re all digital marketers now.
Steven Sauder: You can’t get away from it.
Ray van Hilst: You can’t get away from it, right. So, how is the organization able to use that tech stack to respond and the ones that are, I mean, boom, we had one client, I think they completely switched their LMSs and the way that we’d built their website. We actually have their course catalog and the website is custom content, and all they had to do was just hide that page for a month, move all the content to the new LMS, change the URLs of where it went and they were back up and running and they could market it all.
So, really minimal downtime, think about that, and then they can respond, they could get that out there and that’s a client that has completely pivoted how they’re doing and delivering their content.
Steven Sauder: So, if I’m an organization, what are things that I can do to be more flexible? Is it a company culture thing? Or is it thinking ahead or is it will to have new ideas? What can you do as an organization to make sure you’re resilient, so when something crazy happens, I can come to you and be like, hey, everything has to go online? What do I do? What makes a successful organization successful in that and somebody in the organization not being very successful?
Ray van Hilst: All of the above. So, I think one of the things is particularly in nonprofits or organizations that aren’t spending a lot of money, they have legacy IT systems that they’re stuck with and they haven’t kept up to date, and so they’re not able to respond. So, that first piece is while we love, I was just looking at wireframes and mood boards for a web design earlier, and when you think about a web design project, you think, oh, we’re going to look at pretty pictures.
At the end of the day, I’m a plumber that just puts in infrastructure, so, let’s make sure the organization has that good plumbing that is able to respond and get that website in place. And the tech stack in place, and maybe add the pieces on such as an LMS or so on and so forth, I’ll go through and do that. So, here’s that piece, internal skill development is really key; it does come down to the attitude and the culture of the organization, can we get this done?
Can we do this? Are we going to embrace digital tools? And are we going to stay flexible and just try things and maybe they’ll fall on their face, but also maybe they’ll soar.
Steven Sauder: Yeah. At least trying things is movement; it’s not hanging on and hoping things work out.
Ray van Hilst: Yeah. Well, I mean a good example, one of our clients they’re in the process of capturing a lot of their courses and they wanted to start off with and their courses are going to have to go into certifications. And there’s a whole certification module that will eventually come with that. But as they beta tested this they set up LearnDash,, let’s start off with 25 courses through that and get our modules and going and see how this goes.
And let’s build our library and feed into that and then when we’re ready, we can move to a more robust system that’s going to have all my score tracking, my credits, and all the kinds of stuff like that and can integrate deeper within their member database around that. So, that’s a really good example of let’s try something and they started off with two courses and now they’re up to 25 and they’re projecting a hundred by the end of the year, 200, by the end of next year, courses built within there.
Steven Sauder: When or do we need to go for a break.
Jonathan Denwood: Yeah. We need to go for a break, fascinating discussion, and coming back we’ll be delving a bit more with Ray on this subject. We’ll be back in a few moments.
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Jonathan Denwood: We’re coming back. We’ve had a great discussion with Ray van Hilst, director of client results at Yoko. So, obviously, this is a WordPress kind of focused podcast, but we cover other areas we have guests like you coming in that’s a little bit not so involved in the WordPress ecosystem or community. A couple of weeks ago it seemed that WordPress now runs about 40% of the internet now, how does your agency view WordPress and especially around membership?
You have a lot of SAS competitors like Kajabi, which is focused on the kind of power one person entrepreneur maybe or small team that wants to market themself harder. And then you have corporate learning management systems, SASs, and then you have WordPress, how do you see WordPress and how do you make your decision if you’re going to use it compared to one of the SASs?
Ray van Hilst: Great question. So yeah, full disclosure, we use WordPress 99% of the time. That’s what we do, we find, it’s a good choice, exactly. And I say that I’ve been doing this and I’m going to qualify by the way. I am not a technologist, you start talking code and servers and PHP stuff and opening things up, I am completely lost. I’m a marketing guy, I’m a marketing strategist and a content strategist, that’s what I do and from that perspective and working with our clients, we focus on, I joke let’s make this easy enough that Ray can do it.
And how you manage content, I’m trying to be the low bar that we set within that; WordPress has become, it’s such a flexible and powerful tool for organizations of all sizes. It’s extensibility our developers follow WordPress best practices with custom posts, stability to do structured content, pretty much we have clients come to us like, oh yeah, must do Drupal. And I’m like, well, let me show you WordPress and they’re like, oh my God, this is so awesome, so for that.
And the other thing quite frankly, so I’ve worked in my career with commercial CMSs, I am a certified Sitefinity consultant, I worked with Sitefinity in a previous organization. I’ve worked with Sitecore experience manager, et cetera, 99% of the time WordPress does what we need it to and it’s just easier to use, and I think about Kinsta as being one of your sponsors.
We’ve got about a hundred sites running on Kinsta, so it scales up very nicely within their hosting, for example, one of our clients early on had to pivot to taking their live event and get it into the website and turn it into a virtual event and Kinsta scaled up nicely. Didn’t even flinch at the excess traffic all on that one day, so some very nice features for that, and then the integrations we ended up having to integrate with other clients’ systems pulling that over.
So, I think what’s really important for WordPress within that realm is as I tell the team, figuring out what to put on the page should be harder than actually putting the content on the page, and let’s make that easy to use as we go through that. So, we have a pretty set stack of tools that we use when we’re building out our clients’ sites but scaled super nice.
Jonathan Denwood: So, when it comes to marketing automation, is that something that there’s growing interest from your customer base? And if there is, what are some of the, especially around membership, that’s what we’ve been discussing. Is there interest in using marketing automation with these associations and how do you introduce them? Because it’s a rather big subject, an elaborate subject, isn’t it?
Ray van Hilst: Just a little bit. Yeah. So, we’ve full disclosure, we are HubSpot partners, so I do HubSpot.
Jonathan Denwood: I forgive you, Ray, you’re a nice person.
Ray van Hilst: Yeah. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a HubSpot fanboy, but then again, I’ve also used Marketo, MailChimp, and stuff like that. So, with a lot of membership organizations historically their marketing automation would be a drip campaign that’s tied into an external system, there are some service providers in the association industry that integrate very well with the member databases. So, because you want to keep that singular point of record of who’s a member, who’s not, and all the stuff that goes within that.
And what a lot of people realize is like a drip campaign is not marketing automation, that’s just programming a series of events; true marketing automation is dropping you into personas, if you did this, do that, if you’re a trade association, which the trade associations are what companies belong to. One of our clients is the telecommunications industry association, so Verizon and T-Mobile as a company joined that, so we’re seeing a lot of organizations are looking at marketing automation of, we talked about engagement earlier.
How can we take those email-only members and convert them to members, convert them to advocates for what we do, evangelists, and start personalizing that content for them? So, we’re definitely seeing demand tip-up, a friend of mine was at the American College of Radiology, if you’ve ever had an x-ray that’s their members, he used Marketo. I think at one point he said that he had 60 workflows going for various things just like, how can you automate? So, it is definitely growing.
Jonathan Denwood: Over to you, Steven.
Steven Sauder: With HubSpot, HubSpot is super cool, but they have a pretty high price tag. Is it hard for you to get clients on board with paying a good chunk of change for marketing automation? Or do you feel that’s a pretty easy sell for you guys?
Ray van Hilst: So, yes and yes. You’re right, it does have a high price point and what we see is that clients that start on other systems, particularly if they have that IT maturity or the MarTech maturity, hit the ceiling really quickly on what those other systems do. And it’s a pretty quick transition out of it. SharpSpring is another good solution, we’ve done SharpSpring implementations as well, so that’s a good example of a system, and then the other thing, HubSpot might not like me if I say it like this, negotiate with them.
Because that’s the problem with HubSpot’s pricing is that it’s based on the number of contacts in your database, and if you’re an association, one of our clients is the American Association of Endodontists. They have 15,000 endodontists in their database and the rack pricing that comes on the website for that, that’s out of reach, it’d be mind-numbing, but we can be like, hey, let’s negotiate on this. What can you do? And HubSpot’s been good about working with associations and I believe that they even have association-specific customer support.
Steven Sauder: I’ve seen their startup pricing thing or whatever, you can get in for super cheap, which is pretty cool for companies that are just starting out that aren’t well-funded and they want to try to ramp up fast. And then it’s just a game of, can you get your marketing to work to pay for it in one year?
Ray van Hilst: Exactly. So, it’s definitely looking at how do you, I think the opportunity for organizations membership, or otherwise is to not just look at how many transactions can you drive with your marketing automation. But also how can you deepen that engagement and make that organization part of your life where you identify with it and you feel like it’s part of the tribe.
Steven Sauder: And really right now that’s the investment that you can really make into building the relationship is through those digital cashpoints.
Ray van Hilst: It’s the only way. Because we’re not seeing each other in person and how many Zoom happy hours can you do before your liver gets mad at you?
Steven Sauder: For sure. Oh, man. How many can you just tolerate from a mental standpoint?
Ray van Hilst: Exactly.
Steven Sauder: I guess that kind of goes hand in hand though. Something that you said a little bit a while ago, but it kind of made me think a little bit, is you were talking about just start off in LearnDash, and maybe you migrate to a more sophisticated system down the road. Or you would talk kind of like, do whatever you can do right now and then figure it out what that next step is. I feel like a lot of people often talk about choosing the right solution and put so much time and energy into this is the end all be all, we’re going to make this decision once and this is what it’s going to be.
Or when you’re working on a new site design or new landing pages, it has to be perfect because I don’t want to touch this ever again kind of thing. Is it possible to do that or do you always have to just view websites and LMS systems as like we’ll be here for a couple of years and you know what? We’ll probably be somewhere a little bit later and just like, don’t sweat it, and don’t overthink it kind of.
Ray van Hilst: So, if you think about the traditional because we do a lot of web design work and there’s the traditional model of I go through all this work to build a website, I launch, I move on to the next project. My website gets stale, two to three years later my CEO calls me and says, the website suck, it’s a piece of crap, rebuild it, or we’re not getting leads out of it. Meanwhile, you’ve been doing all these projects and it sucks by the way because you haven’t been updating it for three years.
That’s why it sucks, so let’s do it again, let’s rebuild it, let’s do our strategy, and so on and so forth as we go through that. And this is just a vicious cycle and it’s like, we’re going to put out an RFP, we’re going to hire a new agency. And all of a sudden you just keep churning in that process, your better option is always be iterating, always be improving. And that’s that concept of growth-driven design that, okay, we’ve launched now, what, what are the metrics we want to change?
How can we do this? So, there’s a good example, I mentioned the American Association of Endodontists earlier; they have a whole site for patients, so if you want to learn about root canals for that. So, we do work with them of like, okay, how can we optimize for SEO? How can we optimize conversions into their find an endodontist tool? And we just on a monthly basis, we look at the analytics of what’s happening and then say, okay, what if we just move this CTA, which is the same thing, B2B SAS marketers do.
B2B SAS marketers always are doing landing pages and landing page optimization and conversion optimization, so can every other organization. And I think it’s okay to put those experiments out and if they fail, they fail, and then if you stay flexible, and nimble in what you’re doing and keep in mind that things are going to keep changing. If the time comes that you need to swap out a piece of technology because you’ve had that mindset as you’ve gone, it’s not as big a shift in the future. As I said, that client of mine, switched to LMSs in a month.
Steven Sauder: Yeah. That feels crazy that you could do that.
Ray van Hilst: Yeah. They just had these courses getting moved over, and we were controlling the front-end inputs of how you got to the course. So, all they had to do was just change the URL that it went to in the course library and they’re up and running and offering more courses.
Jonathan Denwood: We need to wrap up the podcast part. Are you okay to stay with us and do some bonus content? We’re going to do some bonus content listeners and viewers, which you’ll be able to watch on the WP-Tonic, YouTube channel, and website; you’ll be able to watch the whole interview plus the bonus content. So, before I wrap it up with Ray, I also want to tell you of a webinar, Spencer Foreman and I from the WP-Tonic Round- Table Show are going to be doing on Friday, March the 12th at 10:30 Pacific Standard time.
And it’s going to be about marketing automation, how you can use Spencer’s product with WooCommerce we’ve automated to make professional landing pages. And then with FluentCRM, but you’re able to bundle these four products together and build modern, scalable automation all based on WordPress. So, if that sounds interesting, maybe Ray should join in and listen to it, we’ll probably learn about how WordPress is growing, something that is powerful and a lot less expensive than some of the SAS platforms.
How do you join us? And by doing that you’ll be able to ask me and Spencer questions, you just go to the WP-Tonic website and in the main navigation, there’s a button that says webinar. You just click it, sign up, and then you’ll be able to join us free on March the 12th at 10:30 AM Pacific Standard Time, and it will be a feast of knowledge. So Ray, how can people find out more about you and more about your agency?
Ray van Hilst: Awesome. Yeah, so our URL is www. yoko, Y O K O C O.com, so Yokoco.com. No relationship to Yoko Ono it’s named after Chris Yoko, everyone always asks about that.
Steven Sauder: I almost did.
Ray van Hilst: Yeah. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, I also happen to highly search engine optimized. So, if you do a Google search for Ray van Hilst, I’m number one in search for my own name, so I’ve got that going. So yeah, I love to chat with people and feel free to drop me a line and learn about us.
Jonathan Denwood: And Steven how do people find out more about you and zipfish.
Steven Sauder: Yeah. Head over to zipfish.io and run a speed test to see how much faster we can make your website.
Jonathan Denwood: And they did some work on the WP-Tonic website and they made it a lot quicker. So, if you’re looking for speed optimization, zipfish are the people to go to. We’re going to wrap it up, folks; we’ll be back next week with another great guest, another great interview. And hopefully, we’ll see you on the WP-Tonic YouTube channel for the bonus content, we’ll see you next week, folks.
Outro: Thanks for listening to the WP-Tonic podcast, the podcast that gives you a dose of WordPress medicine twice a week.
Every Friday at 8:30 am PST we have a great and hard-hitting round-table show with a group of WordPress developers, online business owners and WordPress junkies where we discuss the latest and most interesting WordPress and online articles/stories of the week. You can also watch the show LIVE every Friday at 8:30 am PST on our Facebook WP-Tonic Show page. https://www.facebook.com/wptonic/