A Look into Productivity Evangelism at Thunder | Here’s How We Sprang Into Action

By Max Thomas

In the spirit of “breathing new life into work,” we launched an “internal cause” of productivity evangelism back in January that we’re just now starting to see the impact of, including what we’ve learned about how Thunder operates, and how we plan to implement this new knowledge company-wide. Not intentionally (I assure you), it’s sort of cool that this post is going up on the first day of spring.

At Thunder, there’s always been a continuous focus on increasing productivity from the use of tools (productivity, SEO, shortcuts, content marketing), to tactical procedures (like link building and local search), to internal processes (like time-keeping, PTO, and more). But never before have we taken a hard look at just how we spend our time and how we might operate differently on all levels to the benefit of ourselves, the company and our clients.

This post is the first of a multi-part series that looks at how we kick-started productivity evangelism at Thunder, what this means, and what we’ve learned…and what we’re going to do differently. It portends big changes and benefits here at Thunder. We hope our lessons help you, and we welcome learning from other organizations too.

So, here’s how it all started.


When: Back in early January 2013 at a client review and scheduling meeting.
Where: Thunder’s conference room.
Who: Brian Skarin, Max Thomas, Shawn Massie

MAX (talking to Brian and Shawn): New clients…blah blah blah…Brain, could you handle this client….who should be the A/E’s for these clients…blah blah blah….how best to support local search….blah blah blah…

SHAWN (talking to Max): This is all great, but if I were you, I’d make productivity my number one concern.

In short, I agreed. This wasn’t new news. I knew Productivity (with a capital P) had been an ongoing issue, and I’d heard this from other people too. I also knew we had to do do something now, or Thunder wouldn’t grow into the organization we all want it to be.

Aside from the time-saving benefits, I believed (and still do) that increased productivity would lead to: an increased sense of completion and accomplishment on a personal level for the work each of us does; a better understanding of how we can expand given our current team (at what point do we bring on additional resources and at what level of expertise?); an increased profitability so there are more resources for raises and company activities, as well as funds for expansion to new services; and the discovery of any “sweet spots” where Thunder has existing efficiencies and/or expertise that we can build upon further.

The Inspiration

With this as the background, we came together as a team and identified what we saw as the biggest productivity drains and the issues surrounding them. In-house and agency folks might recognize some of these, as well as anyone dealing with client services.

Monthly Reports

We really do produce insightful, in-depth and easy to understand monthly reports – our clients even tell us so (we trust ’em). But our reporting has been a highly manual process that takes hours. Sure, we leverage Google Docs for tracking and analyzing data, and Advanced Segments for data filtering, but we update the Google Docs and build the report documents manually. Huge waste of time, I know (hear that big sucking sound?).

Come January, Shawn spearheaded the way to glorious automation by utilizing the Google Analytics API to create automated KPIs. He had created the first report so we weren’t at full automation yet. As such, this lead to the question of what resources do we need to migrate our monthly reports over to an automated format, and how much of a priority are automated reports. Lastly, it raised the question of whether the value and insights of our reporting would be jeopardized by a more automated and templated approach.

Client Status

What’s the current status of a client? If the Account Executive working on a campaign is not around, how would someone else know what’s been done and where to pick up the campaign? We do a good job of managing campaigns but the system of organization varied by Account Executive. This obviously had to change.

One Place For Everything

Similar to client status (above), it seems we’re all using multiple tools and resources to support our work, including Basecamp, Google Docs, Trello, etc. Would it possible to have everything about a campaign in one place?

Tool Preferences

Given the visual aspects of Trello, the content and social media teams used Trello heavily for campaign management, while the SEO, link building and outreach teams used multiple tools (such as Basecamp, Google Docs and Raven Tools) on a campaign-by-campaign basis. Would it be possible to get everyone to use one primary campaign management tool? Likewise, how would we integrate the use of other tools that are superior for specific tasks (such as Trello for managing content development)?

Campaign Execution

How long does it take to execute on local search? Secure a link? Perform outreach? Write a blog post? Does the time it take us to actually “do” the campaign tasks match with what we’re charging, and the value that the specific tasks bring to the campaign overall?

Client Communication

Some clients take more time than others and can really derail a process or even a day. How can we better manage client communication so that we are responsive but not thrown off by too much client interaction?

We all know that at the end of the day, everyone is going to evaluate the success of a campaign by the growth in goals and metrics. Can we maintain focus on execution and minimize time spent on client communication when necessary? As such, are there any suggestions for how we might manage emails and questions from clients more efficiently? Do we consider options like “no email communication day,” scheduling monthly review calls, or the like?

Talent Priority

Are we using our greatest resource (our talent) as prudently as possible? For example, should a Senior Specialist be submitting local search citations and writing blog posts (simply because s/he can) when they could be working on higher level tasks like campaign review, strategy development, creating editorial content calendars, even outreach to authority bloggers? Clearly, the short answer is no, so that left us with figuring out exactly what are “higher level” tasks, how long they take, and what level person is best suited for implementing on those.

Productivity Evangelism Kickoff Meeting

Great. We knew our issues (that is a big win in itself). At this point we needed to figure out how to address them and creative positive change. So we gave this “cause” a name — “productivity evangelism” — and then held a Productivity Kick-Off Meeting (cuz everyone loves another meeting, right?!? – see Personal Note below). The main goals were:

  1. To get everyone on board and behind the effort
  2. Provide recommendations for solutions
  3. Decide on what steps to take now

Following is the rocking presentation we used for the meeting. It includes much of what’s covered here, plus a deeper look at what productivity and success mean for Thunder, and then a drill-down into specific issues and solutions, including room for on-the-fly examples (meaning, it was an interactive meeting with lots of input).

If you’ve come this far, I encourage you to check it out.

I won’t go through all the details, but I will address some of the “aha!” moments and decisions that came out of the meeting:

Aha! Moments – What We Learned About Ourselves and How We Work:

  • “I’m not really sure how much time I spend on various tasks, and if that time matches the value of the task” (wake-up call that none of us truly understood how much time we spent on various tasks and the value they generated)
  • Every client who enters Thunder gets handled with golden, silk-lined, high-performance gloves; how to differentiate between different levels of campaigns?
  • “Your inbox is NOT your priority list” (a personal favorite)
  • Inbox Zero really works! (a personal goal)
  • Turn off internal “auto responder” (meaning, don’t respond to every email – be mindful of “feeding the bears”)
  • Email people what I’ve done, not what I’m going to do (it’s more proactive and it cuts down on useless back and forth emails)


1. Launch Automated Reporting Across All Campaigns

We’re cooking with gas now. We decided to finish building out the automated KPIs that pull from Google Analytics API, as well as move them online via Google Sites. In addition, we made it a resource priority to build them out for all campaigns by end of March.

Jumping forward to today, the automated reports save hours of time we used to spend doing a manual process. Furthermore, now that the reports are easier to update (some are 100% automated), more of the focus can be on review and strategy, which leads to better results.

2. Make Basecamp The Central Hub For Campaigns

One tool to rule them all. Make Basecamp the central go-to place for campaign updates and information, including logins, client history (via messaging, writeboards, and file uploads), links to relevant Google Docs, Trello boards, and other important notes. This included making Trello the main platform for managing content development and assets.

While there were generally two camps of thought regarding Basecamp and Trello, in the end the ability to track time became the overarching feature of Basecamp that made it the best choice for the “control center” of a campaign. Likewise, by pulling in links to Trello boards, Google Docs and other outside resources to a Basecamp Writeboard and/or Message, we were able to determine how to use all tools to the best of their advantages.

3. Conduct Full Time Audit In February

Working 9 to 5…what a way to make a living. We decided to make February the month that we track every thing we do (crazy!). As such, we tracked everything in Basecamp and the time it takes to accomplish each task.

This way we can compare the time actually spent on implementation and client communication to how much time we work (based on the payroll time-tracking) as well as to how much we charge for services. This also required creating a template for every campaign in Basecamp including guidelines on campaign setup, standardization of tasks, and more.

Springing Forward

So in the spirit of spring, we feel like we’ve done some house cleaning, made some decisions and are moving forward with our productivity evangelism. As I mentioned before, this is our “own story”. I hope it’s helpful to other organizations. Likewise, I’d like to hear from others too and what they’ve tried and learned, and what failed as well as what got implemented. I like to think it’s all part of building a business and an industry.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on the Time Audit results and Basecamp setup.

Here’s a blog post about La réunionite aigue — Sorry, the french is in the graphics, so Google Translate isn’t super helpful here.

Read all of our posts about Productivity Evangelism at Thunder!

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Max Thomas

By Max Thomas

Max is a nationally recognized digital marketing specialist who is an expert on search engine optimization and data-driven digital marketing who has spoken at SMX and SMX Advanced, LMA Southeast, LMA Tech in San Francisco, WordCamp and other industry recognized conferences. As the founder and CEO of ThunderActive, Max has lead his team (with offices in San Diego and New York City) to success for clients in legal, real estate, life sciences, consumer goods and new tech. A Columbia undergraduate with a Yale MBA, Max is an Impact Circle Member for The Trevor Project and is an advisor to start-up companies and angel investment networks, including Gaingels and Serval Ventures in New York.

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