A Digital Marketing Foundation

Corey Northcutt    By under SEO Auditing.

Every great digital marketing system combines three things.

It doesn't matter if the brand is B2B or B2C. Ecommerce or brick & mortar. They are:

  1. Foundation
  2. Funnel
  3. Flywheel

Everything our agency does revolves around this, and today, we're talking foundations. How we build them. And how you can build one for your business too (with or without our help).

What Is A Digital Marketing Foundation?

Your flywheel is how you get traffic. Your funnel is how that becomes revenue. Your foundation assures that you haven't made any mistakes that prevent those two processes from being successful. It assures that your strategy is going to resonate. It steers you clear of search engine penalties and missed opportunities.

Your foundation is the oft-forgotten glue that holds all other digital marketing together.

And it's two things.

  1. Market Research
  2. Optimization

We'll go through each below, before providing a calendar you can use at the end.

How To Do Market Research

Learn before you act.

Is your brand the answer to a question that nobody asked?

Most are. That's a big part of why most fail.

Northcutt is an enterprise SEO agency -- not a market research firm. This subject runs deep. We don't chase it as deep as specialists would. But without the basics, no combination of tactics to "drive traffic" will make you successful.

This is also why most commoditized marketing services are terrible. They don't know your business or your audience.

Everything begins (and ends) with learning.

  1. Audience Surveys and Interviews

Do you know your audience? Do you know what they think of your product and brand? Are you segmenting them right?

I could write a book on this topic. Others have. I'm going to leave you with just this: keep them short, actionable, and do them often.

Ideally, at fixed points in the customer lifecycle, so that you always have fresh, actionable feedback.

If you don't yet have a big enough audience to survey, circulate your idea in one-on-one chats and "growth hack" your early stages with a prototype pamphlet. Don't be afraid to interview people that fit your target customer profile. Disciplined Entrepreneurship by Bill Aulet describes how to manage this stage of your business better than anything else I've read.

  1. Value Proposition(s)

What specific problem can you solve better than everybody else?

How do you do it, and for who?

We live in the golden age of startups. Today, a new, global brand is spawned every minute. But if you look around, wants and needs are as common as ever.

If you've never worked out your value proposition, remember, this is a process, and it doesn't have to begin perfectly. Just document why your business is better than everybody else for one corner of the market. There are lots of formats you can use.

As you add products/services, target new market segments, or improve your offering, keep iterating this document.

It's fine to have multiple value propositions but realize that each time you approach a new group from a different place, you risk muddling your core message and spreading the marketing systems behind them too thin. There's also a good chance that you'll need to fine-tune or start over entirely based feedback, which comes next.

  1. Buyer Personas

Personas are profiles that stereotype would-be members of your key audience segments. They rhyme with the concept of "audience personas" if you come at this from an IT/UX background.

There are lots of ways to do them. We begin simply, based on audience surveying, collaborating with the brand's stakeholders, and our best assumptions. And most of ours stay simple, but as marketing efforts evolve, we update them.

If you'd like to get elaborate with personas, Adele Revella's book Buyer Personas hits this hard. She'll do these for around $25,000 per set based on phone interviews with members of your audience.

For right now, the point is just that you need these. As Kurt Vonnegut said:

"Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."

As your organization grows, it only gets harder to maintain a certain tone across a brand. Don't get caught like many, furiously rewriting your first few years of biographies, landing pages, blog posts, and press releases to sound cohesive.

Now That You Have These Documents

You're still missing two key elements of good market research.

  1. Audience Demand
  2. Competitive Analysis

These topics are important and we've built them into the next stage of the process.

How To Optimize Tactics

Optimizing your digital marketing for search engine rankings, more sales per visit, and better return from advertisements is complicated. But Northcutt has streamlined it into an art.

Across our proprietary digital marketing audit system of 24 step-by-step checklists, we've itemized all of the tricks and pitfalls in a purely action-focused format. This is based on thorough research, including our 25,000-word fact-check on how Google ranks websites and many of our own scientific studies.

There is a ton of work to be done. Too much to do at one time. Meanwhile, digital marketing, your brand, and your web presence are evolving. So it's important to prioritize.

But first, let's talk a little about the modules in the system and what they mean.

A Digital Marketing Foundation 1

You can browse the checklists here if you want to dive deep. Each audit fits under one of these umbrellas.

Keyword Research: There are four keyword studies that we recommend doing again and again.

  1. Core & Long-Tail Matrix: What 10-15 keywords are your best, long-term targets? And, what are the millions of keyword permutations that include them? Breed these into all core brand content and the site's architecture. Build new content if you need to (often, you will).
  2. Topic Breadth: What wide range of phrases fits a topic and how does it fit current content plans? These are the studies that will power your content marketing. They're generally very specific, verbose problems that relate to your core keywords (above). Though, they don't necessarily contain those words directly.
  3. Low-Hanging Fruit: What keywords just need a little extra attention to get to #1? For best results,
    build in an editorial cycle that marries traffic and ranking to your content calendar so that you always have a way to prioritize what content to expand or promote.
  4. Competitor Intersect: What do two close search competitors rank for, but you still don't? This is a great recurring study for brands in their final stage of content development. By doing gap analysis on what competitors rank on and you don't, no opportunity gets left on the table.

Core SEO: These six audits are critical for getting search traffic to a site. I've repeatedly seen brands multiply their search revenue this way without spending a dime on ads or link-getting campaigns. The truth is, it's still a lot easier to do things wrong than right with Google, and you don't know what you don't know. These 300 or so odd steps reveal what's most broken.

Core Inbound: These audits impact SEO too, but more indirectly. Also, your flywheels (ability to get more traffic/links) and funnels (ability to sell). Topics like making your site faster, more mobile-friendly.

Special SEM: These audits are situational. Do you have a local market? An international market? Do video? Do you pay for Google Ads? If you said yes to any of that, there are a few more audits that matter to you.

Special Inbound: Do you use marketing automation? Do you want to optimize your digital marketing for more sales? It's situational, depending on your software, if you do ecommerce transactions, gather B2B leads, or attract retail customers. Regardless, some of these checklists will certainly squeeze out extra sales.

Most of this relates to SEO: ranking in Google's free listings and the digital marketing that make this possible. Most of this also relates to UX: the overall user experience, which affects brand perceptions, sales, and worth of mouth.

A good way to visualize this concept is by using a Venn Diagram. Here's how just a few of them fit in.


UX only matters if people arrive on your site to experience things.

Technical SEO (like, in these audits) doesn't matter very much until you have a market + keyword strategy. You also need a good portfolio of incoming links to the site. Two factors define "good" in this case:

  • Diversified enough to have the coverage that a naturally well-marketed brand should. Press releases, industry directories, interviews of the founder, guest editorials, blogger reviews, and so forth.
  • Competitive enough that it's on similar footing as the backlink portfolios of the competition. A deep dive using a data provider like ahrefs.com is critical for making that decision.

With that information, a smart business owner will understand the phase their SEO is in and use that knowledge to optimize based on that phase. Here's how to do that:

Phase 1 Phase 2 Phase 3
Focus energy on link acquisition. Apply the five "core SEO audits" from the link above every 6 months. Apply the full 12-month foundation audit calendar (below).


Phase 1 and phase 2 are pretty simple. Once a brand reaches phase 3, we do everything in a rotation. You'll need certain studies and audits more often than others. In our company, this feeds into a clear, simple optimization score out of 100 that anybody can understand. If you're doing this work yourself, we give away the first half of each checklist and the concept behind all 24 modules for free.

The Foundation Calendar

The ideal frequency to run Northcutt audit checklists varies a bit for different brands. This aside, the calendar below is ideal for most. It includes all the topics above.

And that's it.

This is how a brand builds and maintains a profitable digital marketing foundation.

It's work. But so is all the time you've probably spent reading click-bait content about growing your business or perusing one-trick marketing tools. I'm willing to bet that none of that has ever left you with a plan that's as direct, thorough, or effective as a step-by-step walkthrough of every idea that matters.


Once you've established a strong foundation, your brand is ready to develop funnels that convert visitors on a competitive level.