People might be surprised to learn Eric Siu—a master marketer known for his ability to transform top technology companies—has another claim to fame: gaming. Before he entered the world of marketing, Siu, 34, spent his time competing in championships for games like World of Warcraft and EverQuest.
The reason Siu enjoys (and has largely succeeded at) digital marketing, he says, is because he treats his work as if he’s playing a video game. Each decision he makes and step he takes is akin to leveling up—the stakes are just a little bit higher in real life.
“The ability to pull levers and then all of a sudden, traffic comes in, or even partnering up with other people… it’s fun,” he says.
Siu’s story isn’t one of a linear trajectory toward success. He almost got kicked out of high school for nearly failing a required course. Then, he almost flunked out of college for missing too many classes. “School never made logical sense to me because the premise was built on following the rules of a system,” he writes in his book, Leveling Up: How to Master the Game of Life. “I was never built for following rules—I always wanted to do my own thing.”
After eventually graduating from the University of California, San Diego, Siu took a dead-end job doing data entry at a small health records company. Not long after, he pivoted to digital marketing, where he spent a few years as the vice president of marketing for a digital education startup. In 2014, he decided to do what he always wanted—his own thing—and he acquired the failing search engine optimization (SEO) agency Single Grain for just $2.
He has since grown Los Angeles-based Single Grain into a major digital marketing powerhouse with revenue in the eight figures and a staff of 46 employees. Single Grain works with big technology companies like Uber, Amazon and Salesforce. Siu, who recently moved from L.A. to Miami, also helms ClickFlow, a marketing analytics company, and co-hosts the popular daily podcast Marketing School with fellow digital marketer Neil Patel.
Knowledge is Power
Siu says Single Grain has been so successful because its services are focused. Digital marketing offerings are seemingly endless, and he believes his agency’s specialization in SEO and paid media (e.g., Instagram and Facebook ads) sets them apart from the competition.
“Specialization goes a long way,” Siu says. “You don’t want to go to a general surgeon. You want to go to someone who’s done it a thousand times.”
Solopreneurs and small businesses don’t typically have the budget to hire a digital marketing agency like Single Grain. They’re often completely in charge of their company’s marketing strategy.
Like many marketers, Siu is self-taught. He believes that before taking any action, all entrepreneurs should spend two, three or even four months listening to podcasts, watching YouTube videos and reading blogs about marketing.
“It doesn’t take long to pick this stuff up,” he says. “The foundational pieces of marketing took me about three months to learn. If I can do it, I think anybody can.”
Not only will brushing up on marketing help you grow your business now, but it’ll pay off years down the road. “If you understand just a little bit about marketing, then when you end up hiring people, they can’t run circles around you,” Siu says.
Put It Into Practice
Whether you’re a solopreneur offering graphic design services, an entrepreneur who just launched a children’s toy startup, or you run a local bagel shop, Siu offers these eight tried-and-true tips for improving your marketing strategy:
1. Consider creating longform content.
When Siu acquired Single Grain, the company’s website got around 3,000 visits per month. By focusing on longform content, including podcasts, YouTube videos and blogging, Siu increased site visits to 350,000 per month—not to mention 1.5 million podcast downloads per month.
“Whenever I’ve tried something to get fast results, it’s very fleeting,” Siu says. “But whenever I’ve done something for the long term, that’s always worked well for me. As long as you stay with it, and you know you’re taking the right actions every single day, it’s going to compound over time.”
2. Cultivate patience.
Siu says the No. 1 mistake he sees is people expecting results too quickly. Although creating longform content can have an immense payoff, it could take years to see results. This is why people often go for paid social media ads instead of putting the effort into something that will last.
“It’s human nature—we’re not wired to think long term,” he says. “If you can rewire your brain to think long term—and accept all the pain that you’re going to eat for those one, two or three years—then you’ll be way ahead of anybody else.”
3. Take a different approach.
Siu believes paid media, one of Single Grain’s niches, will become automated in the coming years, much like other areas of marketing have become automated in the past. Companies can ensure they remain relevant by always focusing on creativity, the cornerstone of marketing.
“What’s going to stay for people is creativity,” Siu says. “Creativity is not something a machine can easily replace, so that’s going to be the sweet spot for people.”
4. Build a strong community.
For small businesses looking to increase their customer base, Siu recommends focusing on building a community, whether that’s through a Facebook group, a podcast, or by getting involved in a social cause your customers support.
“To be able to build a brand new community—a brand-new audience—that to me is very interesting,” he says.
5. Reach your audience organically.
Try to figure out where your audience hangs out instead of just focusing on whatever is most popular at the moment. For example, if you run a swimming pool maintenance business, you might not want to aim for TikTok just because it’s the hot channel right now. You might instead look at creating instructional videos for YouTube.
6. Think about the value you’re providing.
Regardless of the type of content you’re creating, think about the value you’re providing your customers. In email marketing, for example, you want to create a pattern in which people look forward to the next email you’ll send, Siu says.
“Provide value first instead of trying to make an offer every single time,” he says. “It’s like going to the bank. You want to make deposits more than you’re making withdrawals. You can’t just go to the bank and make withdrawals from the first day. Think value first, and then all the other stuff will come.”
7. Stay away from blogging.
Blogging allowed Siu to grow his company’s monthly site visits from 3,000 to 350,000 per month. However, he began blogging seven years ago. If he acquired Single Grain today, he says, he wouldn’t opt for blogging simply because it would be nearly impossible to rank high in Google search results.
“Blogging is a very red ocean right now,” he says. “It’s very competitive. If you’re starting from scratch, it doesn’t matter how good of a writer you are, you’re still going to need a lot of help on the promotion side.”
8. Adopt an abundance mindset.
One of the biggest challenges companies face is knowing when something is worthwhile and when it’s just a shiny new toy. Siu doesn’t follow trends just because they’re “the next big thing.” Instead, he focuses on doing one or two things really well.
“You can hit those channels anytime you want,” he says. “The analogy [I use] is that there’s a sphere. Success is on all the edges of the sphere and you start in the middle. But if you keep changing directions all the time, you’ll never reach one of the edges.”
The Game of Life
In Leveling Up, Siu looks at the lifelong journey of self-improvement through the lens of a video game.
His approach to life is similar to his approach to business: Personal growth is a never-ending game in which the goal is to continually improve ourselves so we can “power up” and reach the next level.
“The idea of life gamification is that you are viewing your life through the lens of a game,” he writes. “It’s fun to wake up in the morning when you’re on a meaningful quest for self-improvement, collecting helpful power-ups. The more power-ups you collect, the faster you will level up and the stronger you will become.”
Siu believes his ability to see both life and business as a video game has helped him immensely. Whether he wins or loses doesn’t matter—he views everything as part of the overall game.
“I never have really high highs or really low lows,” he says. “Too much emotional attachment can affect how you work, how you engage with other people and how you live your life.”
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo Courtesy of Courtesy of Eric Siu
Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer based in Chicago and the former features editor of SUCCESS magazine. Her work has been published in The Cut, VICE, Inc., The Chicago Tribune and Business Insider, among other publications. When she's not writing, she can usually be found drinking matcha tea into excess, traveling somewhere new with her husband or surfing Etsy late into the night.