Steve Hartert is the chief marketing officer at JotForm. He’s had more than 30 years of B2B and B2C marketing management experience. Prior to JotForm, he was the president of Hartert & Associates, a marketing consultancy that worked with B2B and B2C companies. Steve has been actively involved in marketing internet companies since 1995. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona and an MBA from Cal State San Bernardino.







In This Episode

Steve Hartert has been in the internet marketing space since 1995 and has over 30 years of experience in marketing management. He is now the CMO at JotForm, an online forms platform. In this episode, Steve talks about the importance of balancing finance, marketing and production in your business and how big data and AI will fit into this puzzle in the future.

“It's like having this big mixing board, and you just start working the knobs and pushing the levers until you find where that optimum peak is. Anything beyond that is waste, and anything below that, you're not taking advantage of all your opportunities.”

Topic Timeline:

1:29 Advice to Your Younger Self

The world runs around numbers. You need to have an understanding of just how money operates in a business environment.

3:05 Manipulating Your Marketing Budget

Finding that optimum peak where anything beyond that is waste and anything below that is missed opportunities.

4:50 Utilizing Feedback

Steve’s team uses customer and non-customer feedback to constantly improve their product and offer.

6:15 Justifying Your Development

It’s challenging to justify an investment in advance. You might start with a 100 ideas, whittle them down to most popular and most possible, and then focus engineering time on just five of those projects.

8:27 Strategic Skills

Being able to look at something from a 100,000 foot level and then back down at a more grounded level helps Steve understand what each project in JotForm is going to take and what steps need to be followed to get there.

9:12 Driving People to the Door

JotForm uses a lot of online advertising tools and content marketing to drive people to the door, but it’s really the product that gets them to enter and stay awhile.

11:00 What Does SEO Mean to JotForm?

A good SEO strategy blends marketing and advertising speak with a technical component to develop a very specific type of phrasing that is relevant to both readers and SEO algorithms.

15:16 The Future of Big Data and AI

Understanding AI and big data and what all of it means for your business will play a big role in the future of marketing.

17:41 Leaving a Legacy

Business, marketing, sales — it all needs to work together. Steve hopes to be known as someone who understood the importance of that collaboration.

18:30 Great Marketing or Great Product?

You need to have both to truly be a successful modern entrepreneur, and to achieve both, you need to remain focused and not get caught up in shiny trends and headliners.

“It's like having this big mixing board, and you just start working the knobs and pushing the levers until you find where that optimum peak is. Anything beyond that is waste, and anything below that, you're not taking advantage of all your opportunities.”

It’s like having this big mixing board, and you just start working the knobs and pushing the levers until you find where that optimum peak is. Anything beyond that is waste, and anything below that, you’re not taking advantage of all your opportunities.

– Steve Hartert


Show Transcript:

LR: Welcome to Modern Ontrapreneur. Today we have Steve Hartert, who is the chief marketing officer at JotForm. He’s had more than 30 years of B2B and B2C marketing management experience. Prior to JotForm he was the president of Hartert & Associates, which is a marketing consultancy that worked with B2B and B2C companies, and he’s been actively involved in marketing internet companies since 1995. Was there an internet back then? Steve holds a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona and an MBA from Cal State San Bernardino. Thank you so much for being here.

SH: Thank you for letting me be here.

LR: So, JotForm, we at Ontraport think that we’ve been around for a long time. But JotForm, I think you guys might’ve beat us to the punch. When was that business started?

SH: 2006.

LR: So you’ve been at it for 12 years at JotForm, and it’s now over 100 people. You were just saying before we started rolling that you’re in every country in the world. How many languages?

SH: 18 different languages.

LR: 18 different languages. A lot of stuff to handle as a marketing officer. You’ve had a much longer career than the one you’ve had at JotForm. If you could go back to give your younger self a piece of advice, what do you think that would be?

SH: I would say probably, look more and understand the finance end of things a lot stronger. I’ve picked it up as my career has gone on. In the early days I think if I’d have had a better grasp of finance and finance concepts, and primarily as it relates to forecasting, it would’ve been very beneficial back then.

LR: Tell me more about that, why so?

SH: Really, the world runs around finance. It’s numbers. And you have to be able to justify marketing. In the early days when I started off, it was a lot more of a challenge, a lot more difficult, actually, to prove where your marketing dollars were generating ROI.

The tools were just really primitive back then. You would do a survey, you get the results back and it might be six months. If you’re looking now, you’re talking data from October, November. Very outdated. The tools now are much better, so you can actually see how something’s working almost in real time. You have to be able to justify that dollar amount that we’re going to spend in marketing to the bean counters in your company. The better you can do that, the better you can show a dollar spent here is going to generate a dollar fifty there, the better chance you have of getting that dollar to start off with.

The key to it is just really to have a good grasp of all of that information and understand how the world of finance works around a business. Not that you’re trying to work on Wall Street, but you still need to have an understanding of just how money operates in a business environment.

LR: I totally agree. It’s interesting. So many people that do great work in organizations seem not to have the exposure to what’s happening in a larger perspective in terms of what the business is as an asset, what this thing is that you’re growing, how investors are thinking about what you’re doing, and how every investment of time that we make and money that we make in a business plays into a larger picture. Having that can really inform the way we think about what we’re going to do.

SH: It certainly does. Again, it comes back down to what we do at JotForm. We take numbers and, since we’re on a global scale, we look at how we’re doing in the U.S. We look at how we’re doing in the UK. We look at how we’re doing in Japan. We’ll look at how we’re doing in Australia. We look on this global basis and we can really zero in and say, “This is what’s working in this particular market. This is what’s working in that market.”

To be able to have that kind of information at your fingertips and be able to manipulate it is incredible. It tells you how to start spending your marketing dollars and start attracting and then you find out where that optimal level is. I like to explain to people, it’s like having this big mixing board and you just start working the knobs and pushing the levers until you find where that optimum peak is. Anything beyond that is waste, and anything below that, you’re not taking advantage of all your opportunities.

We constantly adjust that recipe and, once we have that, you start seeing the results really coming in.

LR: Interesting. You’re talking specifically about marketing, but obviously you are marketing a product. How much does your part of the organization have input on what’s actually getting delivered from product?

SH: A tremendous amount actually. Because part of our job is to talk to current customers and provide feedback as far as functionality. What they like about it, what they wish we could do better. Hidden features they might be aware of. Those kinds of things. The other side is that we look and we talk to non customers, and we find out what would it take to get you to come on board? Is there a feature? Is there a price point? Is there some compatibility issue, maybe integration with another product that we’re not aware of.

We bring these pieces to the table and you start snapping this together and you look at it and say, “The interface needs to be brought up to snuff for mobile.” For example, we just released back in February, a product we call Cards, which you can do forms one at a time, but instead of having the long form, you can actually do one question at a time on the form.

On the mobile platform they’re perfect, because you can’t scroll those long forms. But on a phone you fill it out, you swipe, fill it out, swipe, fill it out, swipe. That’s direct feedback from our customer base that said, “We want something that’s going to be a lot more mobile friendly.” That’s what we did on that.

LR: It seems to me in marketing you’re talking about things like investing in SEO which is largely an investment of time, or in advertising, you do have this mixing board experience, where you can really push the levers and get instant feedback. But when you’re talking about product investments, you’re guessing a lot more. To me it seems challenging to justify an investment in advance. It could be a huge investment in engineering time to create a feature, and you’re hoping that people like it and that it actually moves the needle on the business.

How do you think about making that justification in a financial way?

SH: What we do, again, we get dozens, hundreds, of feature requests every year. We chart them all. We map them all out. We look at them and say, “Which ones seem to be the most popular? Which ones do we think we can also engineer and make it happen?” You’ll start off with this laundry list of different features that people would want to have. And we start to whittle it down as far as how much time is going to be involved to create this? What technology is there? For chasing the puck, it’s going to take eight months to develop this, and when we get there, this is what we’re going to have. So these two points might meet up.

You have to look at it in terms of engineering dollars spent and appeal to the consumer. Well our user base is B2B. It’s a little bit of science and a little bit of art. For us, it’s this constant back-and-forth to see how this is all going to work. We might start off with say 100 requests and it comes down to five. That’s all we’re going to focus on for the year. Get these five things done and get them done right. Again, there’s only so many hours in a day. That means there’s only so much engineering time we have for developing it. By the time we develop it, test it, refine it and go back again, you might be three months into something. Well now, you’ve got nine months back in that year, you do that, you can only do four. That’s really what it takes.

LR: What do you think your unique skill set is?

SH: For me I think it’s really on the strategic plan. Being able to look at something from the hundred thousand foot level and then look back on it on that granular level and understand that if we want to get some place in a year from now, what’s it going to take for us to get there? Not only from a marketing perspective, but a business perspective. Identify each step along the way of how we’re going to get there. I mentioned, I should have been more in the finance world. I’ve had a number of people say I probably should have gone into the accounting and finance side because marketers sometimes dream big but they don’t look at the grains.

I look at it and say, “This is where we want to go, this is that big dream.” But what steps are involved at each way? What do we have to do at each step? And what’s it going to cost at each step? I think that’s something kind of unique, just how my brain is wired.

LR: We talked about this right before we started rolling, but tell me again, what’s working at JotForm to drive business?

SH: We have a tremendous amount of … our user base comes in from our SEO activity. We find that works really, really strong for us. We do a lot of a Adwords for a lot of online advertising. We have a mix of Adwords. We do some Facebook ads and some Bing ads. We find that works really good. We also have a lot of good content that we create. We have case studies reproduced for YouTube and PR activities and things like that.

But that only takes you so far. You still have to have a compelling product. You can drive business to the door, and that’s what all this SEO activity does, and this is what all the advertising activity does, but if you don’t have a compelling product for someone to sign up, they’re going to come to the door and turn away.

So we’re bringing them in and we’re getting them to sign up for the product, and we have a freemium model, low risk, they can sign up, they can test it and they can go to our paid levels if that’s what they want to do. We’re finding that works out very well for us. It’s low risk for a user to come on board, and then once they find the value of it, they can start to move up.

It comes down to, we found a statistic, I want to say probably around Christmas time, 90% of the people fill out a form, at least one form, once a week somewhere on the internet. When you start multiplying that population base out, suddenly you look at this is total size of market, just about everybody on
the Internet is filling out some type of a form at least once a week. We’re the ones that provide the forms.

For us these are helping customers develop better data, develop smarter business decisions. It’s not just, “Oh it’s a contact form.” It’s a way to actually communicate business to their customer base. And we’re providing that channel of how to do it.

LR: You were mentioning that SEO is a big part of what’s working for you right now. I think when most people think about SEO they think about getting your meta tags right or your titles of your articles or whatever. But I think you were saying it’s really about doing it right. You guys, maybe somewhat uniquely, do a lot of your SEO in house. A lot of companies tend to farm that out. You guys are doing it in house. What does it look like to do SEO on a day-to-day level? What does that work entail?

SH: A lot of it, you said, you mentioned, we get our tags right, we get our title tags right, we get that part of it nailed down to start with. It’s also the content that’s going to be on that individual webpage. It’s got to be relevant to everything else that’s mentioned in the meta tags or even the title tag. You try to make sure you’re using the right types of terminology.

This is where we look at what phrases people are using to find us, what phrases are they looking at just in general. You try to structure copy around that. Because that’s what the search engines are going to be looking for. That’s not to say you write the copy for an audience of one, which would be a Google algorithm. You can’t do that because if you do that it’s very awkward, it doesn’t read right.

So you have to take this blend of marketing and advertising speak and then merge it with this technical component. You find yourself using very succinct kinds of phrasing. You have to use very specific types of phrasing. But you still have to describe your product. You’re kind of going back and forth on it to make sure you got this material correct. You put the relevant terms in the proper perspective on the page. Sometimes you put it further up in the copy. Things like that. But you have to make it relevant to what’s happening.

The other side is you want to make sure if somebody’s linking to you from the outside, you want to make sure that’s a quality source coming back. Because the Google algorithm is this gigantic thing. But you don’t want to have click farms overseas that are just sending you that because Google can penalize you for that kind of stuff.

The key is to have good, relevant content on your page that actually has something to do with your business, and then you want to have good scoring companies on the other side pointing back to you with links and such like that.

LR: So you guys are doing actual link-building on a day-to-day basis. You have people in your business that are emailing or calling up potential partners or content generators and saying, “Hey would you promote this article that we just posted?” Or something like that?

SH: That’s a real small part of it. We also have a lot of partnerships that we work with. They might send us something on their newsletter and then put a blog on their website that describes a partnership with integration that we have with them. So that’s a bit of it. We do a little bit of, “Hey we want to get some link coming back to us,” but it’s such a small part of it.

LR: Link-building is not really the game anymore.

SH: Not in that sense of it. It really comes back to having as a partnership, because there’s got to be something that’s of real valid type of link. There’s got to be a real natural link to it. For example, we have integrations with Salesforce and things like Zapier and those kinds of organizations. They will highlight it on their website. This is, “Yes we integrate with JotForm.” And then that link, because of the weight that a Salesforce or somebody else might carry, comes back and they’re linking back to our website. That pushes your SEO value up.

LR: So you’ve got people internally that are making sure those links are happening?

SH: Right.

LR: And that they’re pointing to the right pages and stuff like?

SH: Exactly. Just to give an example, the other day we had an article that was published about us, and they mentioned us but they didn’t put a link into the document. They said, “JotForm this,” but there was no link back. So we called them up and said, “The article is great, but when you mention us, the first reference can just put a link back to JotForm.” And they said, “Yeah, no problem.”

They do and then that helps us out. Then we reference back to them because we’ll put it in our news feed and stuff like that.

LR: Makes sense. Perfect. What is the cutting edge for you right now? What are you learning? What do you think is the new next mountain to climb?

SH: I think from a pure marketing perspective, getting your hands around AI and how that’s going to impact marketing. There’s a lot of different things that people are talking about. What it can and cannot do. Some are quite mundane, some are downright scary. It’s trying to get ahead of that curve and understand how those metrics are coming in and how you manipulate the metrics to make them work for you. How do you interpret those metrics and make it work for you?

It’s just so much data is coming in all the time now. There’s the big thing about Big Data. And it’s true. There’s things you’re measuring that you never thought you would ever measure before. It’s understanding what should you really be measuring and what’s just background noise. Just because it can be measured, doesn’t mean it should be measured.

For me it’s just trying to keep focus on what’s important for the marketing perspective, what’s also important then for the bottom line. And the rest just becomes, “Oh these are nice to have,” so you want to look at that kind of stuff.

LR: Can you think of a specific way that AI is going to make a difference to marketers in the very short term future?

SH: I think a lot of it’s going to be just in some of the auto responding. From a marketing and automation point of view, there’s a lot of talk about, “Well it can then digest and build an email and send an email back to somebody.”

LR: So actually automatically generated content?

SH: Yeah, exactly. The way it’s been structured now is that you’ll have content you’ve created and then, based on several key words, it’ll send back the appropriate one. I’ve seen demos of things of various success. They’ll actually take what somebody is asking and then write up content and send that back. Some of it’s better than others, but it misses that human touch. But I can see that, give it a couple years, five years, 10 years down the road, as the technology gets better and more refined, that kind of material actually could be fairly common.

LR: It does seem that it’s a minute away, though.

SH: It does, but everybody wants to sell it as a minute away, but it’s really a lot farther down the road.

LR: Exactly. So you’ve been at this quite a long time. You had your own agency. You’ve been working with a significant player in the San Francisco tech scene now for several years. When you think back on your career what would you like your legacy to be?

SH: Business is like a puzzle. There’s operations, there’s finance, there’s marketing, there’s sales. All the different pieces. All of them have to work together. As I tell people, from a marketing perspective, I can drive the business to your doorstep, but if you’re not prepared for it, you’re going to get angry people on both sides of the door. The internal people are going to be upset because you sent them too much business and they couldn’t handle, they weren’t geared up for it. And you’re also going to have angry customers because we came and there was nobody there to help us out.

It’s understanding how both sides of that equation work. By having that grasp of it and understanding that is where I would like, if people say, down the road when I’m six feet under, they would say, “Yeah, he got that. He understood how this all worked out.”

LR: Cool. What do you think it means to be a modern entrepreneur?

SH: I think being a modern entrepreneur, you’ve got to stay focused. It’s like any other kind of entrepreneur even back 20, 30, 40 years ago. You need to stay focused. It’s very easy to get distracted by something shiny. I see this all the time, where, “This is what we’re going to do,” and then something happens and they veer off to there. It may not have anything to do with their business, and they got all distracted because that’s what got all the buzz. I think being an entrepreneur really comes down to focus, keep refining your product, talk to your customers, find out what they like, what they don’t like, and really build that best product you can buy.

If you allow yourself to go with whatever’s hot and fancy and new and you’re getting the headlines, you’re probably going to walk yourself down into a dead end.

LR: Do you think it’s true that the best product wins?

SH: No. No. I don’t think that’s true at all. I think sometimes it comes down to which ones can be marketed better, which ones can be pushed out the door faster. Sometimes in the long run, I think, sometimes the better product will win. I think by and large it necessarily doesn’t. I can cite a couple of examples of that that are a little bit more old school. But it is true, the best product doesn’t always win.

LR: If that’s the case then, should we not be focused more on marketing than on product?

SH: Again, it’s a mix, right? Because you want to constantly be talking to your customer base to find out what it is they want. But unless your product is solid, it’s going to collapse the minute the customers start to work with it. It’s kind of like building a table. You can build this great table top, but if the legs can’t sustain it, the whole thing’s going to fall down on you. You’ve got to keep a good, solid product because … what you’re saying is right, you can get customers to come to your door and you’ve got this kind of half baked product. They come, they try it, it falls apart underneath them. They’re done. They’re gone. They’re not coming back. So now you’ve ruined the second round of purchases from them, but also word of mouth goes around and now your reputation is shot. That’s why you’ve got to have a good solid product. Not that it’s going to be the final product at the end of the day, because everything evolves. Because you build something, you get customer feedback. You build a little bit more, and then you keep adding to it as it goes down the line.

Every software, every car, everything is changed. Go back. Look at just how Windows or Mac or Word or any of these things. Look at the browsers in the last 20 years. How they’ve changed as far as technology and user demand. Look at vehicles. Look at houses. Look at clothes. All these things. They all change, but there’s a modicum of customer feedback mixed in with building something. When you can do both of those things, you’ll both progress up the ladder.

LR: Having great products and great marketing is the name of the game?

SH: Oh, definitely. Yes.

LR: Great. Thank you so much for being here; it’s been a pleasure.

SH: My pleasure.

LR: Would you do us the favor of signing our wall.

SH: Sure.

LR: Awesome. Thank you.

SH: Thank you for letting me be here.

Want more Modern Ontrapreneur Podcast?

Check out the previous episode featuring long-time start-up executive and founder of Coach Pony, Christie Mims.

About Aslan Williams
Aslan Williams grew up in a small, southern town, tailgating at football games and watching sunsets over the Mississippi Delta. Since leaving her southern roots four years ago, she has lived in five countries, practicing yoga, teaching English and honing her marketing skills at various International internships. Now, as a recent graduate from UCSB, Aslan is applying her degrees in Communication and English in her role as Content Engagement Coordinator at Ontraport.