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Transitioning, Rebranding & Leading In SEO: Q&A With Rachel Heseltine

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Transitioning, Rebranding & Leading In SEO: Q&A With Rachel Heseltine


Diversity, equity, and inclusion are major priorities for organizations in 2022.

But DEI has to be more than just a buzz term – and it needs to happen at every level of the organization, starting at the top.

McKinsey finds that those companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on executive teams are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability.

The impact is even greater for organizations led by professionals with ethnic diversity; they’re 36% more likely to financially outperform the least diverse companies.

What does it look like in practice to be truly inclusive, supporting diversity and equity in real ways, in the workplace?

I reached out to Rachel Heseltine, VP of Customer Growth at Trader Interactive, to ask about her recent experience coming out to colleagues (and the world).

In this interview, Rachel shares what she’s learned about leadership through her transition, how her colleagues and company supported her, advice for underrepresented professionals in SEO, and what it takes to grow into an executive role.

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Coming Out In SEO

What were the greatest challenges you experienced in transitioning from Simon, a fairly well-known male SEO professional and speaker/author, to Rachel?

Rachel Heseltine: “When I announced my transition at TI, I wrote a note to be read out to my team and to be shared across the organization.

Here’s a quote from that note:

I know that this may seem like a big deal to some, but to me it’s not. This is who I am, but fundamentally who I am hasn’t changed. The only thing that has changed is that I’ll now be wearing clothes that have an insufficient number of pockets.

The greatest challenges were pretty much in my head. ‘What would people say?’ ‘How would they react?’ ‘Will I be accepted or ostracized?’ – all valid questions, but all things that held me back.

I told my CMO in November 2019 about my situation but asked her to keep it to herself until I was ready.

I didn’t start to let friends know until late 2020 and didn’t talk to others at TI about it until August 2021.

Then, the full announcement to the company was made in early January.

I received a lot of lovely notes from folks across the company, several of whom I didn’t even know.

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As far as my personal rebranding, I did have to change my Twitter user name, which meant that I immediately lost my verified status. Apparently, Twitter believes me to be a different person.

Then it was simply just changing my name in various places (as well as legally through the court system).

I’ve not gone back to places I previously wrote for, or spoke at, and asked them to retroactively change references to me. That’s the name I went by then, this is my name now.

Of course, my old domain 301’s to rachelheseltine.com. I’d not be much of an SEO if I’d not done that.”

Were there any welcome surprises along the way?

Rachel Heseltine: “There were a few friends that I was very hesitant to tell, unsure how accepting they’d be.

Each one has shown nothing but support and positivity.

Since I’ve gone public on Twitter and LinkedIn, I have had several other folks from the SEO community reach out to me to offer their support.”

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Learning To Lead With Empathy

What new perspectives have you gained on life and leadership through your transition journey?

Rachel Heseltine: “Well, given that a chunk of my transition journey has been completed against the backdrop of a global pandemic, and a switch by many companies to remote working, I think we’ve all gained new perspectives on life and leadership in this new world.

We use a tool called Insights that measures personality traits, and we use that informationally to identify how best folks work, and work together.

I re-took this last month, after last taking it in May 2018.

My biggest difference is that I now lead with empathy, rather than 2018’s motivation (although that’s not far behind).

But given how the remote life and more distributed workforce has shifted more towards introversion than pre-pandemic, in the office, that makes sense.

When you can no longer do a ‘quick drive by’ of someone’s desk, you really need to pay more attention to different signs.

We also use a tool called Ring/Allie; Ring is for celebrating wins, Allie is for anonymous feedback – we pay close attention to both.

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Every quarter the entire company does skip level meetings (we pioneered this in the Marketing Department).

It’s another great, regular touch base with employees that you may not meet with regularly, to get their opinions on how things are going, any issues they have, opportunities they see, tools they want, and how happy they are with their career direction (which, in the era of ‘The Great Resignation,’ is vital to know if you want to try and save someone before it’s too late).”

Supporting DEI In Real Terms

What advice do you have for underrepresented professionals in SEO – those who may be experiencing discrimination, or fearing reprisals if they come out as who they really are?

Rachel Heseltine: “Look for your supporters – folks you can lean on, folks you can reach out to, folks who will reach out to you.

You’re not alone.

There are others in the SEO industry who are in the same boat as you.

For example, there’s an LGBTQ+ SEO slack group that I’ve been a member of for a couple of years now.

Look for a therapist you can talk to, one with experience in your situation. They’ll know what the appropriate steps are and what speed to take them, based on your situation, as well as a good working knowledge of your protections in your state.

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Look at your company, what initiatives do they have in place?

After the summer of 2020, TI officially formed a DEI (Diversity, Equality, Inclusivity) council.

That, and the work they did through that council, showed me that my company was going to work with me in a positive, supportive manner through my transition, once I informed them. And they did.”

Growing Into SEO Leadership

What path brought you to your VP role and what advice do you have for junior SEOs who aspire to leadership?

Rachel Heseltine: “I’m the Vice President of Consumer Growth, which incorporates SEO & SEM for our marketplace sites (RVTrader, CycleTrader, etc.), and dealer sites, Content Marketing, PR, Corporate Communications, and Social Marketing.

Basically, if it involves getting consumer eyeballs on websites, that’s my area.

I joined Trader Interactive (TI) almost four years ago, after leaving a similar position at a former sister company.

Before that, I worked at HPE and was a Senior Director running SEO for (at one point) 135 AOL O&O sites such as TechCrunch, Engadget, Huffington Post, etc.

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I had a few other roles before that, and in my past life before SEO (pre-2005), I was a Smalltalk developer.

Don’t be afraid to take a step backward in your career for the right opportunity.

I went from a Director at a boutique agency to a Principal SEO Manager at AOL, with a 20% drop in salary.

I did that because the opportunity at AOL – to work with well-known, large publishing sites, and a large, established team of SEOs – was something that I knew would help me grow as an SEO.

Within two years, I’d been promoted to Director of Audience Growth, and three years later, Senior Director.”

What’s In Your SEO Toolkit?

What cool new SEO/AI tools are you using or excited to try out?

Rachel Heseltine: “Day to day, we use the usual suspects for crawling, competitive analysis, etc.

But, on the new tools side, Ryan Jones, SEO & SEJ author, has recently updated some of his tools, and I absolutely love his free Ngram tool.

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I’ve been using that to help identify areas for improvement for our sites.

All you do is take your keyword list for, say keywords that other tools show you ranking on Page 2 for, plug them into this tool, and see what the commonalities are.

Then, it’s back to your spreadsheet to look for those specific keyword combinations, and then off you go to develop a strategy.”

What’s Next For Rachel In SEO?

You have major SEO accomplishments under your belt. Is there anything else you want to achieve in your career?

Rachel Heseltine: “I’ve been lucky enough to be named an award winner over the years, and at TI we were named the Best In-House Team at the 2020 Global Search Awards, as well as winning a couple of others at the 2020 U.S. Search Awards.

But, that’s not just me; it’s not even just my team. It’s always the entire organization; it really takes a village to build, support, and develop an SEO team.

For my future, I just want to keep improving TI’s digital presence and grow my team members.

What I would like is for those folks that have worked with me to be of the opinion that I’ve had a positive impact on their career, and that they, themselves, then do that going forward for the next generation that they manage.”

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Featured Image: Courtesy of Rachel Heseltine/Trader Interactive





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How We Used a Video Course to Promote Ahrefs (And Got 500K+ Views)

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How We Used a Video Course to Promote Ahrefs (And Got 500K+ Views)

Creating and selling educational courses can be a lucrative business. But if you already have a product to sell, you can actually use courses as a marketing tool.

Back in 2017, about two years after joining Ahrefs, I decided to create a course on content marketing.

I had a very clear understanding of how an educational course would help me promote Ahrefs.

  • People like courses – Folks like Brian Dean and Glen Allsopp were selling theirs for $500 to $2,000 a pop (and rather successfully). So a free course of comparable quality was sure to get attention.
  • Courses allow for a deeper connection – You would basically be spending a few hours one on one with your students. And if you managed to win their trust, you’d get an opportunity to promote your product to them.

That was my raw thought process going into this venture.

And I absolutely didn’t expect that the lifespan of my course would be as interesting and nuanced as it turned out to be.

The lessons of my course have generated over 500K+ in total views, brought in mid-five-figures in revenue (without even trying), and turned out to be a very helpful resource for our various marketing purposes.

So here goes the story of my “Blogging for Business” course.

1. The creation

I won’t give you any tips on how to create a successful course (well, maybe just one). There are plenty of resources (courses?) on that topic already.

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All I want to say is that my own experience was quite grueling.

The 10 lessons of my course span some 40K words. I have never attempted the feat of writing a book, but I imagine creating such a lengthy course is as close as it gets.

Scripts of the course in Google Docs.

I spent a tremendous amount of time polishing each lesson. The course was going to be free, so it was critical that my content was riveting. If not, people would just bounce from it.

Paid courses are quite different in that sense. You pay money to watch them. So even if the content is boring at times, you’ll persevere anyway to ensure a return on your investment.

When I showed the draft version of the course to my friend, Ali Mese, he gave me a simple yet invaluable tip: “Break your lessons into smaller ones. Make each just three to four minutes long.”

How did I not think of this myself? 

Short, “snackable” lessons provide a better sense of completion and progress. You’re also more likely to finish a short lesson without getting distracted by something. 

I’m pretty sure that it is because of this simple tip that my course landed this Netflix comparison (i.e., best compliment ever):

2. The strategy

With the prices of similar courses ranging from $500 to $2,000, it was really tempting to make some profit with ours.

I think we had around 15,000 paying customers at Ahrefs at that time (and many more on the free plan). So if just 1% of them bought that course for $1K, that would be an easy $150K to pocket. And then we could keep upselling it to our future customers.

Alternatively, we thought about giving access to the course to our paying customers only. 

This might have boosted our sales, since the course was a cool addition to the Ahrefs subscription. 

And it could also improve user retention. The course was a great training resource for new employees, which our customers would lose access to if they canceled their Ahrefs subscription.

And yet, releasing it for free as a lead acquisition and lead nurturing play seemed to make a lot more sense than the other two options. So we stuck to that.

3. The waitlist

Teasing something to people before you let them get it seems like one of the fundamental rules of marketing.

  • Apple announces new products way before they’re available in stores. 
  • Movie studios publish trailers of upcoming movies months (sometimes years) before they hit the theaters. 
  • When you have a surprise for your significant other (or your kids), you can’t help but give them some hints before the reveal.

There’s something about “the wait” and the anticipation that we humans just love to experience.

So while I was toiling away and putting lessons of my course together, we launched a landing page to announce it and collect people’s emails.

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The landing page of the course.

In case someone hesitated to leave their email, we had two cool bonuses to nudge them:

  1. Access to the private Slack community
  2. Free two-week trial of Ahrefs

The latter appealed to freebie lovers so much that it soon “leaked” to Reddit and BlackHatWorld. In hindsight, this leak was actually a nice (unplanned) promo for the course.

4. The promotion

I don’t remember our exact promotion strategy. But I’m pretty sure it went something like this:

I also added a little “sharing loop” to the welcome email. I asked people to tell their friends about the course, justifying it with the fact that taking the course with others was more fun than doing it alone.

Welcome email with a "sharing loop."

I have no idea how effective that “growth hack” was, but there was no reason not to encourage sharing.

In total, we managed to get some 16,000 people on our waitlist by the day of the course launch.

5. The launch

On a set date, the following email went out to our waitlist:

Course launch email.

Did you notice the “note” saying that the videos were only available for free for 30 days? We did that to nudge people to watch them as soon as possible and not save them to the “Watch later” folder.

In retrospect, I wish we had used this angle from the very beginning: “FREE for 30 days. Then $799.”

This would’ve killed two birds with one stone: 

  1. Added an urgency to complete the course as soon as possible
  2. Made the course more desirable by assigning a specific (and rather high) monetary value to it

(If only we could be as smart about predicting the future as we are about reflecting on the past.) 

Once it was live, the course started to promote itself. I was seeing many super flattering tweets:

We then took the most prominent of those tweets and featured them on the course landing page for some social proof. (They’re still there, by the way.)

6. The paywall

Once the 30 days of free access ran out, we added a $799 paywall. And it didn’t take long for the first sale to arrive:

This early luck didn’t push us to focus on selling this course, though. We didn’t invest any effort into promoting it. It was just sitting passively in our Academy with a $799 price tag, and that was it.

And yet, despite the lack of promotion, that course was generating 8-10 sales every month—which were mostly coming from word of mouth.

A comment in TrafficThinkTank.
Eric Siu giving a shout-out about my course in TTT Slack.

Thanks to its hefty price, my course soon appeared on some popular websites with pirated courses. And we were actually glad that it did. Because that meant more people would learn about our content and product.

Then some people who were “late to the party” started asking me if I was ever going to reopen the course for free again. This actually seemed like a perfectly reasonable strategy at the time:

7. The giveaways

That $799 price tag also turned my free course into a pretty useful marketing tool. It was a perfect gift for all sorts of giveaways on Twitter, on podcasts, during live talks, and so on.

Giving away the course during a live talk.
Me giving away the course during a live talk.

And whenever we partnered with someone, they were super happy to get a few licenses of the course, which they could give out to their audience.

8. The relaunch

Despite my original plan to update and relaunch this course once a year, I got buried under other work and didn’t manage to find time for it.

And then the pandemic hit. 

That’s when we noticed a cool trend. Many companies were providing free access to their premium educational materials. This was done to support the “stay at home” narrative and help people learn new skills.

I think it was SQ who suggested that we should jump on that train with my “Blogging for Business” course. And so we did:

We couldn’t have hoped for a better timing for that relaunch. The buzz was absolutely insane. The announcement tweet alone has generated a staggering 278K+ impressions (not without some paid boosts, of course).

The statistics of the course announcement tweet.

We also went ahead and reposted that course on ProductHunt once again (because why not?).

All in all, that relaunch turned out to be even more successful than the original launch itself. 

In the course of their lifespan on Wistia, the 40 video lessons of my course generated a total of 372K plays.

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Play count from Wistia.

And this isn’t even the end of it.

9. The launch on YouTube

Because the course was now free, it no longer made sense to host it at Wistia. So we uploaded all lessons to YouTube and made them public.

To date, the 41 videos of my course have generated about 187K views on YouTube.

"Blogging for Business" course playlist.

It’s fair to mention that we had around 200,000 subscribers on our channel at the time of publishing my course there. A brand-new channel with no existing subscribers will likely generate fewer views.

10. The relaunch on YouTube [coming soon]

Here’s an interesting observation that both Sam and I made at around the same time. 

Many people were publishing their courses on YouTube as a single video spanning a few hours rather than cutting them into individual lessons like we did. And those long videos were generating millions of views!

Like these two, ranking at the top for “learn Python course,” which have 33M and 27M views, respectively:

"Learn python course" search on YouTube.

So we decided to run a test with Sam’s “SEO for Beginners” course. It was originally published on YouTube as 14 standalone video lessons and generated a total of 140K views.

Well, the “single video” version of that same course has blown it out of the water with over 1M views as of today.

I’m sure you can already tell where I’m going with this.

We’re soon going to republish my “Blogging for Business” course on YouTube as a single video. And hopefully, it will perform just as well.

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The end

So that’s the story of my “Blogging for Business” course. From the very beginning, it was planned as a promotional tool for Ahrefs. And judging by its performance, I guess it fulfilled its purpose rather successfully.

A screenshot of a Slack message.

Don’t get me wrong, though. 

The fact that my course was conceived as a promotional tool doesn’t mean that I didn’t pour my heart and soul into it. It was a perfectly genuine and honest attempt to create a super useful educational resource for content marketing newbies.

And I’m still hoping to work on the 2.0 version of it someday. In the past four years, I have accrued quite a bit more content marketing knowledge that I’m keen to share with everyone. So follow me on Twitter, and stay tuned.



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