Why Webmasters Make Great Consultants

webmasterWhen I started at Distilled almost two years ago I had exactly zero real-world business consulting experience. What I did have, though was a portfolio of personal web development projects of which I was the sole proprietor, creator and webmaster.  While some of these ventures were more successful than others the experience, understanding and scrappy marketing tricks I picked up along the way have continued to serve me well throughout my tenure here at Distilled.

Now you’re probably taking a second glance at the title of this article and thinking: “So is this just 1200 words of Jacob calling himself ‘great’ again?” The following is simply this:  In my time working with some of the best consultants in the business I’ve noticed that many, if not most of us dabble in our own web projects if and when we have the time.  Moving from Webmaster to Web Consultant is just one of several paths that can produce high quality SEO team members.  This just happens to be the path I’m intimately familiar with so I’d like to share some of the qualities I’ve recognized in myself and those around me that I continue to find useful month after month.

Webmasters are Jacks & Jills of All Trades

jacktrades1Site owners wear a preposterous number of hats.  They are simultaneously Editor in Chief, Director of Marketing, Chief Engineer, Database Administrator, Head of Design, Senior SEO and CFO all at once. Those reading this article who currently hold just one of these titles may not appreciate the interconnectedness of each as well as a webmaster who has at one time or another, worn them all.

This ability to zoom out and really understand the entire picture gives a web marketer the ability to not only dig up the correct answers but to know which questions to ask in the first place.  Perhaps you’re trying to weigh the effectiveness of your Facebook fan page.  One proficient in social media may look at the number of fans gained over time.  An analytics geek may look at the number of referrals from Facebook to the domain.

But a consultant with the ability to put on several different hats at once could think to connect AdSense to Analytics, create an advanced segment combining Facebook.com and m.Facebook.com, and run a report showing how much revenue each share brought in per content type.  And further still that same person could pivot to their Editor in Chief hat to decide which content to produce specifically for Facebook shares.  All within the same mind: no unnecessary emails between various hat-wearers, no hesitation.

So the question in the above scenario might have started as “Is Facebook worth the effort?” when a better question from an all-hats-wearing webmaster might be “What sort of content could I (or do I currently) create that is effective on Facebook?”.

Of course it’s not as though the social media expert or GA geek couldn’t have reached the same conclusions but this sort of mental ubiquity comes naturally to the seasoned webmaster.  The ability to understand all of the complicated moving parts of a website’s biology without having to defer to various experts can bring light to opportunities that would have otherwise been missed.

We all shell out the mega-bucks for our database engineers and our directors of social media and their perspectives are certainly important.  But don’t forget about Jack & Jill who, while perhaps aren’t technically “masters” of one specific trade, nevertheless have the ability to effectively comprehend the entire machine as a whole because of their diverse skill set.

Webmasters Expect Infinite Agility

The internet marketing world likes to talk big about agility or “the ability to get shit done like... yesterday”.   Site owners are used to things happening almost instantly.  Want to tweak a title tag?  Give me 30 seconds.  SONY DSCTime to create a page targeted at some new, lucrative keywords you just discovered?  I’ll be done before lunch.  No committees, no bureaucracies, no garnering company-wide “buy-ins”.  As long as you can convince yourself of the investment: consider it done.  This is what I’d call: infinite agility.

Most companies simply cannot function in this manner and probably shouldn’t.  The “Jack of All Trades” is often no substitute for a true master of a single trade for certain problems.  But as a consultant it’s often helpful to have that “pedal to the floor” mentality, I think.  Our clients expect results in a timely manner and my experience as a webmaster puts me firmly into that “Why not right now?” mindset at all times, naturally.

The Power of Physical Experience

scott_p_level_upEveryone learns differently.  But for my money nothing cements the importance of a properly configured robots.txt file like an improperly configured robots.txt file on your own server.  Having your own, physical encounter with a robots.txt file allows you to speak intelligently about it and to provide the necessary details needed to make sure the job gets done for your clients.  Heck, you could even write it yourself as opposed to forwarding the latest “How To” blog post on the subject.

You can read a blog post or three on “How to Set Up Google Authorship” or even write an article about it yourself.  But if you lack the actual experience of having set this up it’s much harder to troubleshoot the issue when they’re not showing up two months later.

Ultimately experience is the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  All of the Whiteboard Fridays in the world won’t make up for it.

Many Webmasters Deserve an Honorary Degree in Marketing

degree-250x250The key to marketing in any medium is understanding what your audience wants and fulfilling that. As a webmaster you’re forced to get down and dirty with that audience.  You’re responding to tweets, replying to blog comments, organizing writers and generally very much in touch with your average user.  Those seemingly insignificant interactions with your Twitter followers day after day could help decide which piece of content to focus on next.  I’ve had several wildly successful content and page ideas emerge from simple conversations with real readers.  Sometimes these fleeting details can get lost in a game of email “telephone” between colleagues.  An experienced webmaster knows how to put it all together.

Sadly though, it seems that the fancier a marketer’s title gets, the less in touch they seem to be with their audience as they inevitably shed their responsibilities that include having actual “boots on the ground”.  I think a webmaster is less prone to commit this critical fallacy as he or she has seen the benefit of delivering what their audience wants first hand.

Reassurance Through Technical Competence

381-560x403One of the most nerve wracking moments in any webmaster’s career are those pesky server software updates that need doing periodically. You know they must be done for the good of the realm but nevertheless; your hand trembles, hovering over the “Upgrade to WordPress version 3.X” button knowing that this could be the beginning of a long, painful night with a broken website.  Only a fellow webmaster can truly understand this primal fear.  This perspective allows a consultant to empathize with their client’s similar technical conundrums.

A good web consultant will tell you to make that CMS/Apache/PHP 5 update soon.  A great web consultant has the ability and experience to actually become part of the team, giving specific technical recommendations and offering to order the pizza when things go awry as they sometimes do.

Those are just a few of the more basic webmaster traits that have come in handy as a consultant.  I’m sure many of you reading this now have varying levels of hands-on webmastering experience.  Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

Jacob Klein

Jacob Klein

Jacob spent the first 18 years of his life in the Columbia River basin of Washington State. In order to escape the confines of this rural existence he developed a healthy love affair with technology, especially preferring to explore the outside...   read more

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  1. A webmaster is not always necessarily a good internet marketer. A good webmaster knows how to design/develop/manage websites, etc. But that doesn't necessarily mean they can market them through SEO/PPC/Social media etc.

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    • True. Webmasters don't ALWAYS make great internet marketers. Not sure I follow you, though on your second point. Most site owners are Lead SEO, PPC and Social Media Director as well.

      I suppose the title could have been "Why Great Webmasters Make Great Consultants". That's certainly what I'm trying to imply.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Miguel Marshall

    I don't think I've felt this reflected in a blog post in a long time.

    I've worked in-house in a few small companies and I know how it feels to be at all places at once. I think that having shoe string budget makes you grow too. When you can't solve a problem by hiring someone or buying an upgrade it really pushes how resourceful you can be!

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    • Nice one. I totally agree with your point about surviving on a shoe-string budget (or no budget at all!). It's sort of like playing the Web Development game on HARD MODE :)

      Would have made a great addition to this article, thanks.

  3. Ah, the good old days of webmastery. ;-)

    Seems just like yesterday that I was a budding webmaster for a non-profit or two. All of the demands that were placed upon me were instrumental in turning me into a Web generalist. Update a Dreamweaver site? Sure. Now you want some PPC? Give me an hour and I'll figure it out. Need to send email to 10,000 of your members with out a double opt in? Consider it done. ;) Need that transparency to work on IE 6? I'll have it done tomorrow!

    Luckily, life is much less stressful for me now but when marketing sites I definitely draw upon my past experiences in the trenches to see the bigger picture.

    Thanks for the great post, Jacob. T'was a good walk down memory lane!

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  4. Excellent post. This is true on 90% cases that most of the Webmasters are good consultants because they have been dealing with different problems with their website design , SEO or codding and then they can provide the services as Marketing Consultant or Design consultant to others.

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  5. Webmasters are Jacks & Jills of All Trade this heading is just fabulous.Completely Agree, I think working with all types of business owners(successful and unsuccessful ) , webmasters learn both good thing (what to do) and bad things (what to do) hence get all the quality a consultant need.

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  6. Highly identify with this; well written. I graduated with a CS degree and started as a developer and within 5 years I found myself doing private consulting. I work mostly with marketing directors/managers who have high level marketing strategies to execute and need someone who can be hands-on with implementation (or function as the translator between other developers or 3rd party vendors). It's much more rewarding work than being a code monkey.

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  7. I totally agree with this concept Jacob.

    When I recruit SEO interns, I am looking for someone who has run a website and is active in social media over someone with a formal business or marketing degree. It's not just that they are more likely to 'get digital', it's also that it tends to bring with it a certain resourcefulness and problem solving strength.

    I think the jack of all trades part is even more important that you give it credit for too - or it certainly will be in years to come. The days of businesses going to one agency just for SEO results and another for separate PR or social results etc are dying. Marketing functions are starting to be integrated behind a common brand/content strategy. So consultants and consultancies that can have influence across the board will become increasingly valuable to clients.

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    • I've been thinking a lot about this lately (hence the post), thanks for the reply. I feel like my biggest insights haven't come from one skill or another but from a wholistic, "zoomed-out" vantage point that only people who understand the whole messy system can get to.

      Don't get me wrong, I think that honing and shining various, more mechanized skills is helpful but I think that, in the end it's much more about the swordsman than it is the sword.

  8. Hey Jacob !
    You are right that the webmasters are jack and jills of all the trades.
    They have to manage lots of stuff. They have to be proactive to be a successful person. I appreciate all those webmaster who are fast to do all their important tasks.
    thanks for sharing this post.

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  9. As a seasoned professional at web design, web development, graphic design and SEO; this article really nails it. I started out as a web designer and graphic artist. Over-time, I quickly realized that learning some form of Internet Programming was a must do situation.

    This lead to much greater skill sets and eventually lead me to the online marketing scene. This is one of the primary reasons my business venture shifted. It occurred to me that what is the difference if no one can find your business online. This lead to learning marketing online and SEO/SEM.

    Personally I have held several titles, such as Webmaster, Consultant, Web Developer or Graphic Artist. I still use these skills sets everyday and believe someone who has these kinds of skill sets are a valuable authority figure for any company looking to hire.

    Great post.

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  10. I guess its a similar situation to a successful small business owner of any type where they are the marketing, sales, HR and finance person all rolled into one and these skills give them a great platform to consult.

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  11. Thanks for all the great replies, everyone. Really inspiring that so many out there can relate. This post could have been much more comprehensive but I hope you got the concept from the handful of traits I laid out.

    Rikki, I think you're 100% correct and in v2.0 of this post I'd certainly liken webmasters to small business owners. A nearly perfect analogy, really as the hats are very similar. Often this would quite literally become a perfect analogy as a website may well be your personal livelihood/SB as well.

    Keep your webmastering skills sharp, fellow admins!

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  12. Great article, I often say to people that my job is just amazing because it is ever evolving. I swear i wear a new hat every month. As I read through articles and think about what needs to be applied to my own site I am often amazed with what I can achieve now that I didn't have a clue about 6 months prior. I have to echo John F's comment above though, I have tried to learn about ppc time and time again but for whatever reason I am perplexed by the nuts and bolts of it. As a result I pay for it to be done for me. Knowing the limits of you knowledge really can save you a lot of heartache later on.

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    • Good points, Alec.
      You just can't be a master of everything and you'll never know your strengths unless you at least dabble in all aspects of web development.

      I feel like a lot of people get stuck in their bubble of whatever one skill they call themselves a master of. Great for taking on tasks in that field but not so great for overall vision and strategy IMO.

      Thanks for the comment.

  13. We are definitely Jacks of all trades. That's my favorite part about this line of work. I enjoy understanding how all the different facets of my business work, as it allows me greater control over the entire operation. And I never have problems deciding which areas to expand to as internet life continues to evolve, because I know all the benefits each direction offers. When you're involved from top to bottom, it makes it much easier to quickly adapt to changes and continue growing. Great post Jacob.

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  14. I really identified with this post, Jacob. I especially like the idea of "infinite agility." My love affair with the Internet began when I bought a Web site, not knowing anything. I didn't even know what "HTML" was! After many nights staying up until 4 or 5 am and teaching myself things, I developed two more Websites and continued learning. I went on to Webmaster a medium-sized (8,000 SKUs) eCommerce site where I was basically the "glue" that held a bunch of disconnected departments together enough to actually have the thing make money.

    Here, here on the Honorary Degree in Marketing. If I could have gotten an honorary degree it would have saved me thousands in student loans. Still, I went from Webmaster to "Webmaster with a degree in marketing" which enables me to walk into a room of marketers and have enough credentials that they'll actually listen to me when I give them technical advice.

    I think the only challenge we face when we've worn so many hats is enduring the inevitable frustrations that bureaucracy brings to the table. "Instant" scares a lot of people, especially those who are terrified of making mistakes. As a Webmaster, one becomes highly tolerant of mistakes because we learn that nearly any mistake can be fixed. I'm sure I'm not the only one here who has taken the initiative to update something or post something, thinking I was being efficient and timely, only to walk into a room full of people looking at me as if I'd "gone rogue" :-)

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    • Thanks for the great reply! Glad you can identify.
      Yeah, I have the same frustrations in the consulting world as well. No one can move as fast as you'd like coming from the webmastering world.
      They key would be to have an entire staff of former webmasters all willing and used to the idea of moving quickly and decisively. Good luck finding that environment though :)

  15. Those who are "Jack of all trades" do not always get the respect they deserve and will come across a number of doubters of your abilities.

    I often get asked, "How can you be an expert of everything (Webmaster, SEO, Social Media, PPC, etc.?" My reply, "I'm good at what I do, and if you're not confident I can do the job, then don't hire me...but you can be sure that one of your competitors will!"

    Show confidence and act like you don't need them, but they need you. Play hard to get and they'll be desperate to work with you.

    Just my 2 cents and what's worked well for me in this regard!

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