Unlocking the Power of Digital Marketing and SEO: Insights from Michel Fortin
Step into the world of digital marketing and SEO with Michel Fortin, a seasoned professional who has made significant contributions to the industry. As the VP of Growth Marketing at Drumeo and a renowned visibility strategist, Michel brings a wealth of experience and expertise to the table.
With a strong background in marketing and a passion for helping businesses thrive, Michel has built a successful SEO agency and cemented his position as a trusted advisor in the field. His deep understanding of the current state of SEO and his insights into its future in the age of AI make him a sought-after resource for marketers worldwide.
Throughout our interview, Michel shares invaluable advice on building sustainable and long-term digital marketing strategies. He reflects on his achievements and the impact they have had on his clients’ marketing goals, drawing on his books such as “Power Positioning,” “The Death of The Salesletter,” and “User-First SEO.”
Moreover, Michel delves into the transformative role of AI in digital marketing, highlighting its applications and offering practical guidance for professionals looking to leverage its power. From career tips to his vision for the future, Michel’s perspective on life adds a captivating dimension to our conversation.
Join us as we explore the dynamic world of digital marketing and SEO through the eyes of Michel Fortin, an industry leader dedicated to empowering businesses and driving success in the digital realm.
Q. Can you share with us a bit about your background and how you got started in marketing?
I’ve been marketing on the Internet even before the Internet was a thing. I’ve been coding since my teen years in the early 80s, but it was only after I had the opportunity to build one for a client that I discovered it. After college, I became a marketing consultant and my first client was in 1991. That’s when I suggested creating a website for them. It wasn’t a full-blown website back then, but it was a landing page that worked well.
My freelance career grew quite rapidly thereafter and I created my own copywriting and marketing agency, handling over 2,000 client projects over the course of the next 25 years, mainly doing copywriting, marketing, advertising, and of course, SEO. I also spoke on various stages and Internet marketing conferences around the world along with my wife who became my business partner.
After my wife passed away from cancer in 2015, I sold my business to a digital marketing agency and became their Director of SEO and Communications (i.e., content marketing and copywriting). This agency was later acquired, and I later became the Director of Search (SEO and SEM) for another local agency.
Today, I’m the VP of Growth Marketing for a SaaS company. It’s a learning platform for musicians and those who love music called Musora Media, the parent company behind Drumeo.com, among others. I also occasionally freelance providing SEO audits and strategy consulting services, but I have cut back on it since working with Drumeo.
Q. You’ve argued that chasing higher rankings and focusing solely on short-term gains can be a misleading approach to digital marketing. Why do you believe this to be the case, and what risks does this approach pose for businesses looking to achieve long-term success?
When you look at the two go-to resources that Google has put out, namely the Webmaster Guidelines (now “Search Essentials”) and the Quality Raters Guidelines, clearly Google is seeking to provide the best results possible to its audience. Namely, and based on these two documents, I believe that modern SEO simply boils down to two essential ingredients: providing good quality content and a good quality experience when consuming it.
Google’s changes in its algorithms over the years, along with the introduction of machine learning, semantic search, and core updates that seek to reward content designed to help people and not search engines, are leading to an important evolution in the world of visibility marketing. That is, Google is not only trying to combat spam and less-than-desirable results but also disintermediate itself from the search equation.
In other words, and aside from the explosion in AI, Google is trying to find, process, interpret, consume, and appreciate content like a human being — by providing users with the most helpful and credible content possible, as if the user would find exactly what they are looking for, without the need to go through some robot. In short, they want to offer the quickest path “from search to satisfaction.”
It’s as if Google is trying to remove itself from the search process to provide the quickest results possible and by becoming more human-like. What this means is that trying to game (or even simply trying to appeal to) the search engines for short-term visibility gains is only appealing to the gatekeeper and not its users. But this gatekeeper, this middle person that is Google, shares something in common with you: the user.
Short-term tactics are done by shortsighted SEOs with the hope that search engines can find and serve their content more often to users, regardless of intent or being truly helpful. But with Google’s approach to reducing spam, nonsense, and disinformation, this can be counterproductive and may even risk penalties.
By focusing directly and specifically on the user, and helping them with great content and a great experience, Google will almost certainly give you more visibility — because they are looking for the same thing you are, which is to help the user with the best possible results. You’re both sharing the same audience and therefore the same goal, so it makes sense to think in the longer term by focusing on the end-user.
I call this user-first SEO, which is what Google wants. Just like in the stock markets, short-term gains are always short-lived or incredibly risky. Without providers, Google would still exist. But without users, it wouldn’t. Staying focused on the end user is more certain, less risky, and more appealing to both users and search engines alike.
Q. What do you believe brands should focus on to build a sustainable, long-term digital marketing strategy, and what are some key considerations businesses should keep in mind when pursuing this approach?
Visibility is the key to marketing success nowadays, as marketing campaigns, whether paid or promotional, are limited. They require constant fueling and replenishment. If you stop paying for ads or stop offering promotions, your marketing (and your source of traffic) will stop, too. But by providing value, building awareness, and communicating a unique value proposition, you will create far more reach, traction, and longevity.
Visibility, therefore, includes things like branding, positioning, reputation management, digital PR, content marketing, messaging, and long-term strategies that can provide a steady and almost endless stream of users, leads, and revenue. Like priming a pump, once the water starts flowing you can ease off and it will continue flowing. It takes a lot of work and time in the beginning, but the long-term payoff is significant.
Q. As a marketing consultant and fractional CMO, you work with a range of clients from professional firms to enterprise-level C-suites. Can you describe your ideal client and the type of marketing challenges or goals they typically have?
I work with a variety of clients, large and small, from individual professionals to large corporations with multinational offices in various countries. My ideal clients have been in the professional space, whether it’s a local law practice, a medical group running multiple clinics nationwide, or a SaaS company serving clients on several continents.
The greatest challenge for many clients is generating enough demand and revenue for long-term sustainability and growth. Finding the right mix that will drive the firm’s visibility and outpace the competition (or rise above the noise) can vary greatly. But once that mix is found, it can provide a consistent and predictable stream of customers.
Finding the right mix may include developing a clear positioning and value proposition, producing solid content, and amplifying it with their audience or in their marketspace. Great content exists everywhere and there’s no shortage of it. But coming up with great content that offers a different approach or with a unique twist can create an outstanding user experience that’s useful but also memorable and impactful.
Q. Additionally, what marketing budget range should businesses have in order to work with you, and what types of services or solutions can they expect to receive at different budget levels?
First, I’m a consultant, so I don’t do any implementation work. I strictly conduct audits and assessments and then offer advice or coaching. My Visibility Booster program starts at $10,000 USD for a complete, 360° audit of my client’s visibility, along with a high-level strategy for their SEO and content marketing.
I also offer a lighter version, the Visibility Detox, which is $5,000 USD and meant for a high-level visibility audit, or to fix a specific issue, or to solve a specific challenge.
Q. You have worked with thousands of clients over the course of your 30-year career in marketing, and have been responsible for generating over a billion dollars in sales through your innovative strategies. Can you share some of the successes or achievements that you are particularly proud of, and describe the marketing challenges or goals that these successes helped your clients to achieve?
Obviously, there are plenty of those, and some are not as glamorous or impactful. The reason I’m proud of them is that they involved a lot of strategic thinking or needed to solve a lot of challenges — some of which were seemingly insurmountable. Even when the wins may seem simple, such as doubling or tripling one’s traffic or sales, the reason I’m proud of them is that they involved a lot of work, risk, and planning.
For example, I once had a client with a strong but dwindling presence made up of several sub-brands and websites. They’re a very well-known, well-established brand in their market space, but their traffic had steadily declined in the last few years. After a complete audit, I recommended a migration (i.e., a consolidation of their various brands into one property), which also meant a complete rebranding, too.
Having to migrate a number of disjointed sites and navigating the organization through its rebranding process was very risky — but the payoff was phenomenal and the results surpassed all expectations. We tripled the site’s traffic with one site over all of their previous sites combined, and we grew from less than a few hundred leads a week to tens of thousands following the migration.
Another one of my successes worth mentioning was my first big success. It’s the one I’m most proud of, even though it was 20 years ago. Back in 2004, I was instrumental in launching the first-ever online promotional campaign to sell over one million dollars in under 24 hours. It was never done until then and became the pivotal moment in my career — an experience for which I will be forever grateful.
For this reason, I’ve been often called “The Roger Bannister of Online Copywriting.” Bannister was the first runner to break the four-minute mile, which was hitherto seen as impossible. Once broken, however, it was broken many times since. Like Bannister, my success has since been surpassed countless times by smart marketers who are far more successful than I ever was. But I was glad that my success opened the door to show that it was possible.
Q. You’ve authored several books, including “Power Positioning,” “The Death of The Salesletter,” and “User-First SEO.” Can you tell us a bit about these books and what you hope readers will take away from them? How have these books contributed to your overall approach to marketing and strategy, and what key insights or lessons can readers expect to gain from them?
I wrote Power Positioning as a fluke. What started as a booklet in which I promoted my expertise by doing the exact thing I was teaching (it was a résumé of sorts that contained marketing tips) became a complete book published by Aesop Corp. But the initial goal of the first few editions was to teach readers about the power of marketing and being unique without the need to state it outright, let alone being loud or arrogant.
For example, the book came about because, at the time, my largest clientele consisted of doctors, namely plastic surgeons. But in my state, medical doctors are not allowed to claim superiority over their colleagues. Their licensing board prohibits them from doing so, lest they lose their licenses.
So how do you market yourself as being better than the competition, or as using superior techniques that are better than those used by your competitors? With what I called “Power Positioning,” a doctor can show superiority without the need to state it outright. As one of my early mentors once told me, “Implication is more powerful than specification.” Things like branding, social proof, PR, thought leadership and other strategies like these can communicate superiority without having to claim it.
So the book, really, was a way of getting my name out there. It did the exact thing I was teaching! It was a promotional piece in disguise, so to speak. My goal wasn’t to make money from the books or become a published author. It was simply to use the same tactics I taught — to get my name and my brand out there by helping people out, and to do so by sharing my thought leadership and expertise.
Q. Artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly being used in digital marketing, from chatbots and personalized recommendations to predictive analytics and content creation. What impact do you believe AI is having on the industry, and what opportunities or challenges does it present for businesses looking to leverage this technology?
This is an incredible opportunity for all marketing professionals to learn how to use and harness. AI tools have many more uses than we can possibly think of — or have yet to think of. I’ve seen marketers use AI to conduct market research and even create end-to-end marketing strategies, complete with scoping, budgets, resources, steps, requirements, and deployment plans — from launch to maintenance — and to do it in a fraction of the time it would have taken them to do.
Plus and more importantly, we can use AI to deliver newer, better, and unique experiences to our users and solve their problems more effectively than ever before, which is ultimately the goal of all marketing. We can use it to become more efficient, but we can also use it to become more effective with our users so they can get the maximum benefit from our products and services.
Q. Are there any particular areas where you believe AI is especially effective, or any ethical concerns that businesses should keep in mind when using these tools?
I believe, above all, that AI will be helpful to the degree that it will solve the many complex and seemingly intractable problems that face marketers today. Take, for example, privacy concerns. We are entering a cookieless, trackless world, and the ability to identify, monitor, and measure our users’ behaviors is not only becoming more difficult, but the legal ramifications are getting more and more serious.
Also, with the rapid growth in close-looped technologies or stacks that have severely limited a marketer’s ability to track their users (such as Apple, for example), it will demand for newer and better ways of researching, learning about, and understanding our markets.
AI will therefore help us learn about our users (after all, AI is machine learning at its core) in a far more comprehensive and predictable way than humans can — let alone any current but severely limited tracking technology can, too.
Q. With over 30 years of experience in visibility marketing and as a seasoned marketing advisor, what advice would you give to anyone interested in building a career in digital marketing? What are some key skills, traits, or areas of expertise that you believe are important for success in this field, and what steps can individuals take to develop those skills and gain experience?
Throughout my career, a lot of people asked me, “What’s the most important marketing skill? Is it SEO? PPC? Copywriting? Video marketing? Social media? Email marketing?” Surprisingly, it’s none of those things. The answer may not be the specific skill or expertise you’re looking for, but it’s the best answer given how some things change so rapidly, like technology, while others remain the same, like psychology.
Marketing is a form of creative problem-solving. It’s a constant process of learning, adapting, and growing. (Look at all the businesses that flourished during COVID when their industries were falling flat, for example.) So to be a creative problem-solver, the number one skill to learn, above all else, is resourcefulness.
Being resourceful is not some talent, aptitude, or innate gift, but a learned skill. In fact, to me, resourcefulness trumps SEO, advertising, copywriting, selling, branding, or any other aspect of marketing. All those things are important, for sure. But if you learn this fundamental skill, everything else will become easier. You will be able to research, analyze, adapt, solve, and improve (and do so faster) when you’re resourceful.
In French, the word for resourcefulness is “débrouillardise.” It comes from “Brouillard,” meaning fog or haze, and “débrouillard” is to “de-fog” or to see clearly through the fog. When we talk about someone who is resourceful in French, for example, we often say she’s got the “d-system,” the initial for débrouillardise.
Of all the successful people in the world I’ve learned from or followed, one common denominator stands out the most: they are all incredibly resourceful. Some call it creativity, ingenuity, or initiative. But most people associate creativity with talent.
I prefer creative problem-solving because it’s a skill. It’s not something you’re born with. In fact, more and more schools are teaching students as young as kindergarten on developing creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
Marketing is a form of creative problem-solving, from solving the problem a market is experiencing that needs to be solved (through your product or service), or the problem of researching, reaching, and retaining that market. It’s all about solving problems.
Being creative doesn’t mean you need to pull something out of thin air to create something new. More often than not, you’re just pulling from a vast pool of knowledge, past experiences, similar situations, related industries, a network of contacts, and so on to come up with a solution where none existed before. In fact, the best solutions and biggest breakthroughs often come from looking at distantly different fields where you can mine marketing ideas and adapt to yours.
Finally, resourcefulness is not just about coming up with ideas. It’s also about testing, experimenting, and constantly gathering feedback. Doing so allows you to try different things to find that one missing puzzle piece, that sweet spot or “secret sauce” that can create phenomenal results. Everything you try creates a result. Every result, win or lose, is a lesson to learn from. And every lesson ultimately adds to your growing pool of resources.
Q. Can you share a personal accomplishment that you’re particularly proud of, either within your career or outside of it?
During the years between 2011 and 2015, I went through quite a bit of a roller-coaster ride. My mother, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, passed away in my home at the end of 2011. In 2012, my wife was diagnosed as terminally ill. At the beginning of 2015, my father died of a heart attack, followed by my wife a month later. And finally, later that year, my sister passed away due to complications from diabetes.
Now, I don’t mean to say this because I’m seeking attention or sympathy, but only to point out two key facts. For one, health issues run in my family. I don’t want to die, much less die the same way they did. They suffered so much. Plus, around the time my mother passed away, I was nearly 300 pounds, heavily overweight, out of shape, and with two herniated discs. I had to walk around with two canes or I used a wheelchair when the sciatica was too painful.
So I decided to take my health into my own hands. I lost over 100 pounds and took up powerlifting. At 48 years old (I’m 55 now), I broke the record for my weight and age class, lifting 485 pounds. (I later pulled 505 pounds in the gym.) Having had two herniated discs and weekly corticosteroid injections, deadlifting that much weight in a competitive meet, was, to me, my most proud accomplishment.
Perhaps you can say that resilience was the defining characteristic. But I think that I achieved these things because of the losses I sustained. They made me resilient, in other words. They became the springboard that propelled me in my life, relationships, and career — they were blessings in disguise if you will. As the saying goes, life is what you make it. And life is short, so make the best of it.
Q. What do you enjoy doing in your free time, and how do those activities help you recharge and stay productive in your work?
I’m VP of Growth Marketing at Drumeo.com for many reasons, but one of them is certainly my passion for drums. I’m a semi-professional drummer and have been playing drums since I was 11 years old. I’m in several bands in various genres, including rock, country, and pop. Playing drums or any instrument, to me, is meditative in many ways. It improves my hand-foot coordination and independence, but it also enhances my thinking and creativity.
Music, particularly rhythm, is the most common language in the world. It’s understood by everyone. It can communicate sadness, joy, anger, gratefulness, and more. It can touch people, share ideas, and move them into action, regardless of language, race, or culture. And for me, that means a lot.
Q. Finally, can you share a quote or piece of advice that has been particularly meaningful to you throughout your life or career?
I was diagnosed with ADHD Combined Type very late in life, even though I suffered from this condition since birth. After all, it’s genetic. And I realized that many of my greatest successes, failures, shortcomings, and opportunities were often the result of my condition — not from some external thing, person, or event. ADHD, or any form of neurodiversity for that matter, is both a blessing and a curse.
However, when my doctor gave me my formal diagnosis, he told me I wouldn’t need much help because I’ve become quite adept at learning coping skills and mechanisms, which has helped me so much in the world of business, work, and life. I didn’t know I had this condition until age 52 and only suspected it in my mid-40s. But throughout my life, one coping skill I learned was journaling. It has been one of the most liberating, insightful, and growth-driven activities I ever did for myself.
I explored, questioned, and discovered things about myself and the world around me that became the fuel for my resourcefulness and resilience. I’ve heard many stories of people who have achieved success have done so through this practice — whether it’s mindfulness, meditation, prayer, journaling, diary-keeping, self-reflection, and so on.
If you’re going through some challenges, grappling with some sticky situations, or trying to solve some tough problem, start thinking about it by reflecting on it. Write it down. Take some time to explore and dive deeper into your inner world. The answer may not come right away, but by exploring and diving into your thoughts, you will find the answers.
Some may not be apparent to you. I know that some of mine were written at the beginning of some of my writings, but it was only after I explored all the possible nuances and avenues that made me realize it or that an earlier answer became clear.
More importantly, after my diagnosis, I also learned that it enabled me to have more self-compassion. This is the key. We all have to learn to be nicer to each other, but above all, it starts with being nicer to ourselves. Journaling helped tremendously.
This is a practice of self-awareness and building emotional intelligence. As you become more self-aware, you also become more self-compassionate. And self-compassion is the greatest gift you can give yourself and, therefore, to the world. This reminds me of my favorite quote of all time, which is from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Thank you for your time!
In conclusion, our interview with Michel Fortin has provided us with valuable insights into the world of digital marketing and SEO. From his wealth of experience and expertise, we have gained a deeper understanding of the current state of SEO, the impact of AI, and the importance of building sustainable marketing strategies.
Michel’s successes and achievements serve as inspiring examples of how effective marketing can help clients achieve their goals. With his books and guidance, aspiring marketers can navigate their careers with confidence. Michel’s vision for life reminds us of the endless possibilities and opportunities that await in the dynamic field of digital marketing.
Where you can find me…