Ireland’s first drive-through Starbucks only opened last summer in the Shannon Free Zone, the 600-acre international business park set up beside Shannon Airport in 1959. But the staff there already know Caroline Dunlea by name.
She is the co-founder of Core Optimisation, a nascent digital marketing agency that in early January moved into Shannon Industrial Estate, beside the drive-through. The new offices are two-and-a-half times larger than Core Optimisation’s previous base at Smithstown Industrial Estate 3km away.
After expanding its staff count to 13 by the end of December from two since its creation in 2015, Core Optimisation needed a larger office.
“We had reached capacity at Smithstown,” Dunlea says. “At Shannon Industrial Estate, we’ll have space for 25 staff .”
While the country’s largest digital marketing agencies are mostly based in Dublin, the Co Clare town in which Caroline grew up is emerging as a competing location for digital technology firms.
“The facilities at Shannon are fantastic,” the 42-year-old says. “We’re only a two-minute drive from the airport, which helps because I go over and back to London two or three times a month, and there’s the Gateway Hub for flexible co-working.
“The last couple of people who came on board with us came from the Dublin market because they were looking for a lifestyle change while still working within their chosen field with career progression.
“There are cheaper house prices this side of the country and you are close to Limerick city, the sea, good food and amenities. Getting away from long city commutes is a big draw for people who want more hours in the day. In our office, it’s a talking point if there’s only a three-minute traffic jam at the roundabout.”
Despite being less than four years old and operating from Shannon, Core Optimisation handles digital marketing for 70 clients in Ireland and the UK, including Mount Juliet, Compu b, The K Club, The Dean and Devlin hotels, Kilronan Castle, and the Cliffs of Moher visitor centre.
In the UK, its clients include Eurochange’s 160 branches, Laura Ashley Hotels, and five-star boutique hotels such as The Arch London and St James’s Hotel & Club in Mayfair. Indeed, the UK now accounts for two-fifths of Core Optimisation’s revenue.
As a performance-based digital marketing agency, Core Optimisation develops strategies for clients to increase their online presence and drive online revenue. It uses search engine optimisation (SEO) to drive traffic to a customer’s website by including the right keywords in the site’s content to boost its ranking on Google. The firm also deploys paid search advertising and then optimises conversation rates in the form of bookings for hospitality businesses or sales for e-commerce businesses.
Dunlea says: “Digital marketing is a very broad concept; some firms focus more on social channels and some on brands.
“But we are more focused on the performance side, using metrics to help our clients better understand their own data.
“We go beyond just driving traffic to a website – we look at what the traffic is doing and improve the conversion rate for our clients so that they are getting a better return on investment in the different channels they are investing in.
“If the client is a hotel selling their rooms, weddings, restaurant or golf facilities, we build out an ad campaign with Google to put them in front of a target audience.
“Through information from Google Analytics, we understand which audience would be interested in their product, so we place those ads in front of that audience.
“We also do SEO, where we create and optimise content on the website. For conversion rate optimisation, we place software onto the website that allows us to track customer behaviour to see what they are most interested in. If you’re a customer going through a purchasing journey and a site is, for instance, looking for too much information, there is a risk you might leave. So we make that process more efficient to grow revenue.
“We started out focusing on hospitality clients, but have diversified into other industries, such as financial services with Eurochange and tech with Compu B, an Apple reseller. We now have a 70-30 split between hospitality and non-hospitality businesses.”
Digital marketing is “a very busy space, but we’ve been very successful in Ireland and in the London market. We’re quite proud of being an agency that can fight some of the big players for business and win. It shows location doesn’t matter – performance does.”
It was through hard work and learning on the job, rather than years of formal third-level education, that enabled the Shannon native to rise through the ranks and eventually set up Core Optimisation with David Brett.
Dunlea had the first of her two now-adult children when she was 19 and did a post-Leaving Certificate course in business and tourism.
“That instilled a sense of responsibility and a work ethic, and made me want to succeed,” she says.
She began working for a series of logistics and software companies, mostly in customer service and communications roles. In 2009, she joined Avvio, a Limerick company that provides booking engines for hotels. There, she met David and gradually progressed to the senior management team.
“Avvio was my introduction to the hospitality world,” Caroline says. “I took to it like a duck to water.
“I learned digital marketing on the job at Avvio. What you would have learned about digital marketing at college 10 years ago would be redundant now, so it’s important to keep yourself up-to-date.”
In 2016, Core Optimisation became a Google Premier Partner, which means “we and our clients are at the forefront of new digital marketing tools and training. Google comes to our office and we spend time up there”.
Caroline and David created Core Optimisation in April 2014, but didn’t make the leap to run their own business until they left Avvio in the summer of 2015.
“David and I just gelled at Avvio and the results we generated together were good, so we began looking at what was happening in the UK and non-hospitality market,” Dunlea says. “We wanted to do some things in a different way and carve out our own company.”
Having a supportive and encouraging husband during the transition was crucial.
“Having our family young meant we could both get our careers moving,” Dunlea says. “At home, he does all the cooking, and it’s always been our view that the input into the kids and the house is shared straight down the line.”
The support has paid off. Revenue at Core Optimisation grew 70pc last year, all without any sales staff.
“Up until this point in time, our growth was organic – it came from referrals and word-of-mouth,” Caroline says. “In 2019, we are going to be looking more proactively at developing a sales team.”
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