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Looking for an Advantage in Digital Marketing? Meet Hollis Thomases

February 2013

Hollis Thomases, Web Ad.Vantage
(credit: J. Thomas Photography)

For 15 years, digital marketing strategist Hollis Thomases has been at the forefront of her industry, amassing impressive credentials along the way. Yet many people who come to her business, Web Ad.vantage, still aren’t sure exactly what she does, and Thomases admits her elevator speech is “in perpetual movement” thanks to the constantly shifting nature of her industry. But, at the business’s core is a consultative approach that allows her and her staff to put into practice her notion that tactics without strategy is a recipe for disaster.

So what is it that Web Ad.vantage really does? Thomases explains, “If I’m meeting with business leaders outside of the tech space and say I’m a digital marketing strategist, I get a lot of blank stares. So I just say, I help businesses figure out how to use more of the online marketing channels they are using already to grow their sales and leads.”

Finding Her Path
Before she could get to the top of her game, Thomases had to figure out exactly what that game was. After graduating from Cornell University, she spent 10 years in marketing communications for the food industry, during which time the Internet was really starting to take off. She had always wanted to own her own business, and one day when flipping through a magazine, she noticed a section that promoted the websites of its advertisers. That was when the light bulb went off. Thomases says, “I realized each of those websites needed to be marketed as their own little businesses.”

While her original concept was to use print ads to promote websites, there was much greater interest from companies interested in other website marketing tools, including email marketing, banner ads and site linking. Realizing that was where the opportunity was, Thomases took a hiatus from her original business plan, bought a couple of books including “Internet Marketing for Dummies” and taught herself everything she needed to know, using her own website as her guinea pig. Web Ad.vantage got its first official client at the end of 1998, and Thomases was off and running.

Navigating the Information Superhighway
Success came quickly, and by 2000 Thomases had moved from her home office into the HEAT Center in Aberdeen and then into a rental space before moving to her current Havre de Grace offices in 2004. Today, Web Ad.vantage has a staff of eight and a portfolio of local clients that have included Johns Hopkins University, Harford Community College, Crews Control and Glass Jacobson, and national and global clients such as SafeNet, DAP Products, Inc. and UNICEF Canada.

Top 5 Digital Marketing Mistakes:
IS YOUR BUSINESS GUILTY OF ANY OF THESE?1. Being a Google Analytics “front page” user. Think you’re savvy for using Google Analytics? Thomases says most businesses look at front page metrics and don’t delve any deeper. Without benchmarks, Thomases says you’re spending money without understanding the data you’re reading.

2. Taking one person’s advice at face value. Ever been contacted by a web developer who says he or she “SEO’d” your website and can help you improve your search rankings? Thomases says it’s malarkey – SEO is not a once and done thing.

3. Announcing “We need to be on XYZ social media platform.” “Stop following bright, shiny objects just because everyone else is,” Thomas orders. Step back and consider your bigger strategy and which platform – if any – is right for you.

4. Not having a company LinkedIn page. Don’t underutilize LinkedIn, advises Thomases, who points out that while most employees have good LinkedIn profiles, the business owner or company may not.

5. Being out to lunch when it comes to mobile. In this day and age, if you don’t have a mobile-enabled website or it’s not mobile friendly, “that’s just stupid,” says Thomases.

Thomases built quite a resume for herself along the way, including authoring the book “Twitter Marketing: An Hour a Day,” writing a weekly column for Inc.com, and racking up a host of awards including Maryland’s Top 100 Women of 2012. She has also appeared on local, regional and national television and radio and in national print publications including BusinessWeek and Advertising Age.

So how did she get from there to here? In short, by keeping up with the times. Says Thomases, “By being adaptable and informed, we can stay on top of what’s happening in our industry and not only present opportunities to clients and prospects, but also communicate how these changes will impact them.”

Staying at the Front of the Pack
As to how exactly Thomases and her team keep up to speed in an industry where technology changes almost on a daily basis, she says that while they do attend training at conferences or online, the majority of their learning comes through “news curation.” If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s the idea of gathering information from multiple sources and aggregating them to share in one convenient vehicle – and it forms the basis for how the Web Ad.vantage staff has operated for more than a decade.

“Staying on top of every single technology, especially with the wide swath of things we do, is impossible,” says Thomases. Instead, she keeps up with areas that interest her and delegates other topics to specialists on her staff member who filter and share relevant items with the appropriate parties. Personally, she relies heavily on Twitter and LinkedIn discussion groups to keep up with the latest trends, as well as email because it’s “in my face.” And, Thomases says, she doesn’t just report a news item, but first asks, “Why do we care about this, what should we be looking at that is relevant, and how do we report that to the client?”

Thomases also makes it a priority to develop and nurture her staff so that they can be better at what they do and Web Ad.vantage can be better at serving clients. “Clients do come and go, strategies change, and technology changes, so I find myself being way more evaluative of business processes than I would have been as a start-up,” she comments.

Along for the Ride
The Web Ad.vantage website lists numerous examples of how the firm’s work has benefitted clients, including saving one client nearly $750,000 in annual paid search expenses by revealing that the majority of its business came from organic search.

Of the firm’s current clients, Thomases says she is really enjoying working with Visit Baltimore. Web Ad.vantage handles all digital marketing and advertising for them, from general promotion of Baltimore City to micro campaigns for events such as Restaurant Week and the Grand Prix.

“Because of all the creativity going on, we are looking at new ways to reach the same target audience plus niche target audiences – we’re very good at that. This client lets us explore and test things because we have a very collaborative and trusting relationship. That’s the best kind of client for us,” says Thomases.

Web Ad.vantage is also working with the Baltimore Museum of Art to develop a diverse digital advertising campaign to help relaunch its contemporary wing, using what Thomases calls “lots of different vehicles than traditional banner advertising.”

In addition to these well-known consumer names, approximately half of the firm’s portfolio is made up of B2B clients, including a plastics manufacturer, technology companies and a business that provides Six Sigma procedural training among others.

Staying the Course
While some things change, one battle Thomases has fought since the beginning is convincing clients to put strategy before tactics. Thomases says, “People still tend to lump us into some specific tactical bucket, like SEO, social media or online media planning.” And clients often try to hire Thomases to help with a specific tactic, despite her philosophy that she says is “to always be thinking in a consultative fashion so we can present relevant opportunities and steer clients away from things they think they need but really may not be better opportunities.”

In fact, get her going and Thomases jumps on her self-professed soapbox, saying, “Tactics without strategy is a recipe for disaster. Too many businesses think they have to do something because everyone else has, but they haven’t done the basics. It’s like building a house, roof first.” Instead, she advocates that businesses spend more time auditing, assessing and analyzing things they have already done, either well or poorly. Often, she says, “The information may be right in front of their face, but they don’t know what to look for. It’s the ‘a-ha moment’ when they see it, but we have to present them with the analysis in order for them to understand it.”

One thing Thomases is confident she’s done right for her own firm is maintain its Havre de Grace office to retain her talented staff despite moving her residence to Wilmington, Del. Despite the commute, which she calls her biggest challenge, Thomases tries to make herself accessible to everyone who needs her, from clients and staff to up-and-coming women in the local business community. As for the future, while no one can predict what it holds, it seems a safe bet that Thomases and Web Ad.vantage will continue to be leading the way to the new digital marketing strategies of tomorrow. I95

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