The independent webmaster has taken a beating over the last couple of years. Risk has become harder to spread, labor costs have gone up, outreach has become more difficult and more expensive as Google's webspam team and the growing ranks of the Search Police spread the FUD far and wide.
The web is still a great place to be and still offers incredible opportunity that is largely unavailable, without much more capital intensive risk, in the offline world.
There's still plenty of success to be had in the web-based business model but like any strategy we have to refine it from time to time. I thought I'd share the core processes I go through when starting a new site.
Look for Signal, Look Past the Noise
Online marketers, celebrities, and brands pretty much power the Twittersphere and the 140 character limit invariably leads to statements full of bluster (and shallowness) like:
Links are dead
Forget links get social likes, +1's, RT's, and so on
Guest posting is dead
Infographics are dead
SEO is dead
None of that is true but when folks try to become prognosticators they will just keep saying the same thing over and over, with some slight re-framing, until they finally get it right.
All you have to do is look at the really ridiculous statements over the years about how ranking "doesn't matter". These statements have gone back to at least 2006-ish, craziness.
Or look at the past couple years where we get "social shares are the new link" shoved down our throats despite the data that flies in the face of that statement, at least as it pertains to organic search growth.
Yet, years later both of these "industry trends" would have cost you significant amounts of revenue and search share. We don't have to debate the spam links vs non-spam links here either. No one here is advocating for you to build crappy links and you don't need to.
Establishing Your Portfolio
It's quite likely, as an independent webmaster, that you will have sites that serve different purposes. I have sites that:
are actively being built into online brands (or trying at least :D )
exist as pure, longer-standing SEO plays that are cash cows used to fund more sustainable long-term projects
are built to initially live off of paid traffic, direct outreach, and/or social campaigns with organic search as a tertiary method of traffic acquisition
exist solely to test new ideas or new products before building an actual site/brand
I also work a select type of client. One thing I found helpful was to set up a spreadsheet with some very basic information to help me keep track of things at a 10,000 foot view.
So I have a column for:
Purpose Tag (one of the areas I described above)
Net Monthly Revenue (multiple columns)
Rolling 12 month Net Revenue
Same monthly/rolling numbers for costs
From there, I do a quick chart to show what areas most of the revenue is coming from and where the investment is going. Over time, I try to make sure the online brand area (where we are getting traffic and revenue from a healthly mix of multiple sources) is outpacing the pure SEO plays in both areas and we try to shy away from making too many expensive pure SEO plays where no mid-long term "brandability" exists.
We also like to see growth in client areas as well, but only for the right kind of client. The wrong kind of client can have a really destructive effect on a small team.
Staying small, lean, and profitable are also big keys to this strategy. If you are up against it on debt and overhead you will probably be less likely to make the proper decisions for your long-term viability on the 'net.
Considerations When Starting a New Site
I think most small teams or individual publishers can probably handle 2-3 branded sites at a time (stipulating that a branded site is one where there are just about all elements of online marketing involved). The first step I take is to determine what bucket the site will go in.
A testing site is easy enough to decide on. I might have an idea for a new product so I'll just throw up a small Wordpress site, a landing page, and test it out via PPC. Part of the initial research here is to determine whether there is any existing "search" demand or if you'll be tasked with creating demand on your own.
You can certainly build an online product that will be driven, initially, mostly by offline demand if you have the right networking in place. For the most part we try to stick to stuff where there is some initial demand online as the offline networking component tends to involve, in my experience, a lot more initial work, more stakeholders, etc.
When we look at a "product" we consider the following as "stuff" we could sell:
Certainly a site can have any combination of those elements but generally those are the three basic types of things we'd consider selling. From there we would want to figure out:
brand name and domain (I prefer one or two word domains here, keyword not required)
search volume estimates and the length of the tail for each core keyword
if conversations are taking place across the web for the broader topic or lateral topics where we can insert ourselves/product
if our product can be a niche of an already successful, broader product offering
does the product have a reasonable chance of success in the social media realm
if we can make it better than what exists now
Example of a Product Idea
So one example, as I also dabble in real estate a bit, that I'll give is a CRM/PM solution for real estate investors. Most of the products out there aren't what I would consider "good". Many of the solutions are either just not very good or require some hook into a complex solution like Microsoft Dynamics CRM.
There's demand for the product on the web and there's a lot that could be done, more elegantly, with technologies that are available today to help connect all the things that go into an investment decision and investment management.
This is something I'm kicking around and it's a good example of our strategy of trying to find a successful, broad market where opportunity exists for niches to be served in a more direct, elegant manner.
We could do 2 of 3 product types here, but would likely start with just the online product itself and maybe hang training or courses off of it later.
You Need a Product
If you want to stick around online I believe you need at least 1 product and brand that can sustain the up and down nature of search cycles. You could argue that client work is your product and I'd buy that.
However, I think client work is still an area where you are more beholden to the decisions of others, in a more abrupt fashion (internal client spend decisions, taking things in-house, etc), than you are if you have your own product or service especially at the price points charged to clients.
I could also make the case that if you are selling direct to consumers you are beholden to them as well. Yet, I think the risk is better spread out over an SaaS model, subscription model, or direct product model than it is selling to either a handful of large clients or handfuls of large clients that require a large team of people and all that goes into the management of a team like that.
There still is a ton of opportunity on the web, there is no doubt about that. The practice of finding a broad market and picking a niche in there has worked out well for us in the last year or so.
In some areas we start off with no connections at all. So in areas where we are behind the 8 ball on relationships we will often hire writers from boards like ProBlogger.Net where will we specifically ask for folks who are in that industry with an existing site and active social following to write for us.
We will also ask them to promote what they write for us on their social channels and site while hooking their authorship profile into the posts they do for us. This helps us, in certain industries anyway, really grow an audience for short money and establish relationships with established, trusted people in the space.
Finding that balance between passion and monetary potential is difficult and there's often some level of tradeoff. If you use the items I listed earlier as a guide to determine how to move forward with an idea, or if moving forward even makes sense for the idea, then I think you'll be starting off in a solid position.
The last couple of years have been really turbulent but that also has created more opportunities in different areas and while it's nice to throw out the word "diversify" it's also good to take a more boots on the ground approach than a theoretical one.
The core hallmarks of a traditional SEO campaign are still largely the same but there's no reason why you can't stick around and take advantage of these opportunities, especially with all the experience you have in multiple areas of online marketing from being an independent webmaster in the golden age of SEO.
One of the problems with analysing data is the potential to get trapped in the past, when we could be imagining the future. Past performance can be no indication of future success, especially when it comes to Google’s shifting whims.
We see problems, we devise a solution. But projecting forward by measuring the past, and coming up with “the best solution” may lead to missing some obvious opportunities.
In 1972, psychologist, architect and design researcher Bryan Lawson created an empirical study to understand the difference between problem-based solvers and solution-based solvers. He took two groups of students – final year students in architecture and post-graduate science students – and asked them to create one-story structures from a set of colored blocks. The perimeter of the building was to optimize either the red or the blue color, however, there were unspecified rules governing the placement and relationship of some of the blocks.
Lawson found that:
The scientists adopted a technique of trying out a series of designs which used as many different blocks and combinations of blocks as possible as quickly as possible. Thus they tried to maximize the information available to them about the allowed combinations. If they could discover the rule governing which combinations of blocks were allowed they could then search for an arrangement which would optimize the required color around the design. By contrast, the architects selected their blocks in order to achieve the appropriately colored perimeter. If this proved not to be an acceptable combination, then the next most favorably colored block combination would be substituted and so on until an acceptable solution was discovered.
Nigel Cross concludes from Lawson's studies that "scientific problem solving is done by analysis, while designers problem solve through synthesis”
Design thinking tends to start with the solution, rather than the problem. A lot of problem based-thinking focuses on finding the one correct solution to a problem, whereas design thinking tends to offer a variety of solutions around a common theme. It’s a different mindset.
One of the criticisms of Google, made by Google’s former design leader Douglas Bowman, was that Google were too data centric in their decision making:
When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data...that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions…
There’s nothing wrong with being data-driven, of course. It’s essential. However, if companies only think in those terms, then they may be missing opportunities. If we imagine “what could be”, rather than looking at “what was”, opportunities present themselves. Google realise this, too, which is why they have Google X, a division devoted to imagining the future.
What search terms might people use that don’t necessarily show up on keyword mining tools? What search terms will people use six months from now in our vertical? Will customers contact us more often if we target them this way, rather than that way? Does our copy connect with our customers, of just search engines? Given Google is withholding more search referral data, which is making it harder to target keywords, adding some design thinking to the mix, if you don’t already, might prove useful.
Tools For Design Thinking
In the book, Designing For Growth, authors Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie outline some tools for thinking about opportunities and business in ways that aren’t data-driven. One famous proponent of the intuitive, design-led approach was, of course, Steve Jobs.
It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them
The iphone or iPad couldn’t have been designed by looking solely at the past. They mostly came about because Jobs had an innate understanding of what people wanted. He was proven right by the resulting sales volume.
Design starts with empathy. It forces you to put yourself in the customers shoes. It means identifying real people with real problems.
In order to do this, we need to put past data aside and watch people, listen to people, and talk with people. The simple act of doing this is a rich source of keyword and business ideas because people often frame a problem in ways you may not expect.
For example, a lot of people see stopping smoking as a goal-setting issue, like a fitness regime, rather than a medical issue. Advertising copy based around medical terminology and keywords might not work as well as copy oriented around goal setting and achieving physical fitness. This shift in the frame of reference certainly conjures up an entirely different world of ad copy, and possibly keywords, too. That different frame might be difficult to determine from analytics and keyword trends alone, but might be relatively easy to spot simply by talking to potential customers.
Designing For Growth is worth a read if you’re feeling bogged down in data and looking for new ways to tackle problems and develop new opportunities. I don’t think there’s anything particularly new in it, and it can come across as "the shiny new buzzword" at times, but the fundamental ideas are strong. I think there is value in applying some of these ideas directly to current SEO issues.
Designing For Growth recommends asking the following questions.
What is the current reality? What is the problem your customers are trying to solve? Xerox solved a problem customers didn’t even know that had when Xerox invented the fax machine. Same goes for the Polaroid camera. And the microwave oven. Customers probably couldn’t describe those things until they saw and understood them, but the problem would have been evident had someone looked closely at the problems they faced i.e. people really wanted faster, easier ways of completing common tasks.
What do your customers most dislike about the current state of affairs? About your industry? How often do you ask them?
One way of representing this information is with a flowchart. Map the current user experience from when they have a problem, to imagining keywords, to searching, to seeing the results, to clicking on one of those results, to finding your site, interacting to your site, to taking desired action. Could any of the results or steps be better?
Usability tests use the same method. It’s good to watch actual customers as they do this, if possible. Conduct a few interviews. Ask questions. Listen to the language people use. We can glean some of this information from data mining, but there’s a lot more we can get by direct observation, especially when people don’t click on something, as non-activity seldom registers in a meaningful way in analytics.
What would “something better” look like?
Rather than think in terms of what is practical and the constraints that might prevent you from doing something, imagine what an ideal solution would look like if it weren’t for those practicalities and constraints.
A lot of usability testers create personas. These are fictional characters based on real or potential customers and are used try to gain an understanding of what they might search for, what problems they are trying to solve, and what they expect to see on our site. Is this persona a busy person? Well educated? Do they use the internet a lot? Are they buying for themselves, or on behalf of others? Do they tend to react emotionally, or are they logical? What incentives would this persona respond to?
Personas tend to work best when they’re based on actual people. Watch and observe. Read up on relevant case studies. Trawl back through your emails from customers. Make use of story-boards to capture their potential actions and thoughts. Stories are great ways to understand motivations and thoughts.
What are those things your competition does, and how could they be better? What would those things look like in the best possible world, a world free of constraints?
“What wows” is especially important for social media and SEO going forward.
Those other sites are not bringing additional value. While they’re not duplicates they bring nothing new to the table. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what these people have done, but they should not expect this type of content to rank.
Google would seek to detect that there is no real differentiation between these results and show only one of them so we could offer users different types of sites in the other search results
Cutts talks about the creation of new value. If one site is saying pretty much the same as another site, then those sites may not be duplicates, but one is not adding much in the way of value, either. The new site may be relegated simply for being “too samey”.
"I don't fucking want innovation," an anonymous ex-employee recalls Pincus saying in 2010, according to the SF Weekly. "You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."
Generally speaking, up-and-coming sites should focus on wowing their audience with added depth and/or a new perspective. This, in turn, means having something worth remarking upon, which then attracts mentions across social media, and generates more links.
Is this certain to happen? Nothing is certain as far as Google is concerned. They could still bury you on a whim, but wowing an audience is a better bet than simply imitating long-established players using similar content and link structures. At some point, those long-established players had to wow their audience to get the attention and rankings they enjoy today. They did something remarkably different at some point. Instead of digging the same hole deeper, dig a new hole.
In SEO, change tends to be experimental. It’s iterative. We’re not quite sure what works ahead of time, and no amount of measuring the past tells us all we want to know, but we try a few things and see what works. If a site is not ranking well, we try something else, until it does.
Which leads us to….
Do searchers go for it? Do they do that thing we want them to do, which is click on an ad, or sign up, or buy something?
SEOs are pretty accomplished at this step. Experimentation in areas that are difficult to quantify - the algorithms - have been an intrinsic part of SEO.
The tricky part is not all things work the same everywhere & much like modern health pathologies, Google has clever delays in their algorithms:
Many modern public health pathologies – obesity, substance abuse, smoking – share a common trait: the people affected by them are failing to manage something whose cause and effect are separated by a huge amount of time and space. If every drag on a cigarette brought up a tumour, it would be much harder to start smoking and much easier to quit.
One site's rankings are more stable because another person can't get around the sandbox or their links get them penalized. The same strategy and those same links might work great for another site.
Changes in user behavior are more directly & immediately measurable than SEO.
Consider using change experiments as an opportunity to open up a conversation with potential users. “Do you like our changes? Tell us”. Perhaps use a prompt asking people to initiate a chat, or participate on a poll. Engagement that has many benefits. It will likely prevent a fast click back, you get to see the words people use and how they frame their problems, and you learn more about them. You become more responsive and empathetic sympathetic to their needs.
Beyond Design Thinking
There’s more detail to design thinking, but, really, it’s mostly just common sense. Another framework to add, especially if you feel you’re getting stuck in faceless data.
Design thinking is not a panacea. It is a process, just as Six Sigma is a process. Both have their place in the modern enterprise. The quest for efficiency hasn't gone away and in fact, in our economically straitened times, it's sensible to search for ever more rigorous savings anywhere you can
What's best about it, I feel, is this type of thinking helps break strategy and data problems down and give it a human face.
In this world, designers can continue to create extraordinary value. They are the people who have, or could have, the laterality needed to solve problems, the sensing skills needed to hear what the world wants, and the databases required to build for the long haul and the big trajectories. Designers can be definers, making the world more intelligible, more habitable
Actually, they’re not words they’re acronyms, but you get my drift, I’m sure :)
It must be difficult for SEO providers to stay on the “good and pure” side of SEO when the definitions are constantly shifting. Recently we’ve seen one prominent SEO tool provider rebrand as an “inbound marketing” tools provider and it’s not difficult to appreciate the reasons why.
SEO, to a lot of people, means spam. The term SEO is lumbered, rightly or wrongly, with negative connotations.
Consider email marketing.
Is all email marketing spam? Many would consider it annoying, but obviously not all email marketing is spam.
There is legitimate email marketing, whereby people opt-in to receive email messages they consider valuable. It is an industry worth around $2.468 billion. There are legitimate agencies providing campaign services, reputable tools vendors providing tools, and it can achieve measurable marketing results where everyone wins.
Yet, most email marketing is spam. Most of it is annoying. Most of it is irrelevant. According to a Microsoft security report, 97% of all email circulating is spam.
So, only around 3% of all email is legitimate. 3% of email is wanted. Relevant. Requested.
One wonders how much SEO is legitimate? I guess it depends what we mean by legitimate, but if we accept the definition I’ve used - “something relevant wanted by the user” - then, at a guess, I’d say most SEO these days is legitimate, simply because being off-topic is not rewarded. Most SEOs provide on-topic content, and encourage businesses to publish it - free - on the web. If anything, SEOs could be accused of being too on-topic.
The proof can be found in the SERPs. A site is requested by the user. If a site is listed matches their query, then the user probably deems it to be relevant. They might find that degree of relevance, personally, to be somewhat lacking, in which case they’ll click-back, but we don’t have a situation where search results are rendered irrelevant by the presence of SEO.
Generally speaking, search appears to work well in terms of delivering relevance. SEO could be considered cleaner than email marketing in that SEOs are obsessed with being relevant to a user. The majority of email marketers, on the other hand, couldn't seem to care less about what is relevant, just so long as they get something, anything, in front of you. In search, if a site matches the search query, and the visitor likes it enough to register positive quality metrics, then what does it matter how it got there?
It probably depends on whos’ business case we’re talking about.
Matt Cutts has released a new video on Advertorials and Native Advertising.
Matt makes a good case. He reminds us of the idea on which Google was founded, namely citation. If people think a document is important, or interesting, they link to it.
This idea came from academia. The more an academic document is cited, and cited by those with authority, the more relevant that document is likely to be. Nothing wrong with that idea, however some of the time, it doesn’t work. In academic circles, citation is prone to corruption. One example is self-citation.
But really, excessive self-citation is for amateurs: the real thing is forming a “citation cartel” as Phil David from The Scholarly Kitchen puts it. In April this year, after receiving a “tip from a concerned scientist” Davis did some detective work using the JCR data and found that several journals published reviews citing an unusually high number of articles fitting the JIF window from other journals. In one case, theMedical Science Monitor published a 2010 review citing 490 articles, 445 of them were published in 2008-09 in the journal Cell Transplantation (44 of the other 45 were for articles from Medical Science Journal published in 2008-09 as well). Three of the authors were Cell Transplantation editors
So, even in academia, self-serving linking gets pumped and manipulated. When this idea is applied to the unregulated web where there is vast sums of money at stake, you can see how citation very quickly changes into something else.
There is no way linking is going to stay “pure” in such an environment.
The debate around “paid links” and “paid placement” has been done over and over again, but in summary, the definition of “paid” is inherently problematic. For example, some sites invite guest posting, pay the writers nothing in monetary terms, but the payment is a link back to the writers site. The article is a form of paid placement, it’s just that no money changes hands. Is the article truly editorial?
It’s a bit grey.
A lot of the time, such articles pump the writers business interests. Is that paid content, and does it need to be disclosed? Does it need to be disclosed to both readers and search engines? I think Matt's video suggests it isn't a problem, as utility is provided, but a link from said article may need to be no-followed in order to stay within Google's guidelines.
Matt wants to see clear and conspicuous disclosure of advertorial content. Paid links, likewise. The disclosure should be made both to search engines and readers.
Which is interesting.
Why would a disclosure need to be made to a search engine spider? Granted, it makes Google’s job easier, but I’m not sure why publishers would want to make Google’s job easier, especially if there’s nothing in it for the publishers.
But here comes the stick, and not just from the web spam team.
Google News have stated they may remove a publication if a publication is taking money for paid content and not adequately disclosing that fact - in Google’s view - to both readers and search engines, then that publication may be kicked from Google News. In so doing, Google increase the risk to the publisher, and therefore the cost, in accepting paid links or paid placement.
So, that’s why a publisher will want to make Google’s job easier. If they don’t, they run the risk of invisibility.
Now, on one level, this sounds fair and reasonable. The most “merit worthy” content should be at the top. A ranking should not depend on how deep your pockets are i.e. the more links you can buy, the more merit you have.
However, one of the problems is that the search results already work this way. Big brands often do well in the SERPs due to reputation gained, in no small part, from massive advertising spend that has the side effect, or sometimes direct effect, of inbound links. Do these large brands therefore have “more merit” by virtue of their deeper pockets?
SEO has helped level the playing field for small businesses, in particular. The little guy didn’t have deep pockets, but he could play the game smarter by figuring out what the search engines wanted, algorithmicly speaking, and giving it to them.
I can understand Google’s point of view. If I were Google, I’d probably think the same way. I’d love a situation where editorial was editorial, and business was PPC. SEO, to me, would mean making a site crawlable and understandable to both visitors and bots, but that’s the end of it. Anything outside that would be search engine spam. It’s neat. It’s got nice rounded edges. It would fit my business plan.
But real life is messier.
If a publisher doesn’t have the promotion budget of a major brand, and they don’t have enough money to outbid big brands on PPC, then they risk being invisible on search engines. Google search is pervasive, and if you’re not visible in Google search, then it’s a lot harder to make a living on the web. The risk of being banned for not following the guidelines is the same as the risk of playing the game within the guidelines, but not ranking. That risk is invisibility.
Is the fact a small business plays a game that is already stacked against them, by using SEO, “bad”? If they have to pay harder than the big brands just to compete, and perhaps become a big brand themselves one day, then who can really blame them? Can a result that is relevant, as far as the user is concerned, still really be labelled “spam”? Is that more to do with the search engines business case than actual end user dissatisfaction?
Publishers and SEOs should think carefully before buying into the construct that SEO, beyond Google’s narrow definition, is spam. Also consider that the more people who can be convinced to switch to PPC and/or stick to just making sites more crawlable, then the more spoils for those who couldn’t care less how SEO is labelled.
It would be great if quality content succeeded in the SERPs on merit, alone. This would encourage people to create quality content. But when other aspects are rewarded, then those aspects will be played.
Perhaps if the search engines could be explicit about what they want, and reward it when they’re delivered it, then everyone’s happy.
I guess the algorithms just aren’t that clever yet.
Jon Henshaw put the hammer down on inbound marketing highlighting how the purveyors of "the message" often do the opposite of what they preach. So much of the marketing I see around that phrase is either of the "clueless newb" variety, or paid push marketing of some stripe.
@seobook why don't you follow more of your followers?
One of the clueless newb examples smacked me in the face last week on Twitter, where some "HubSpot certified partner" (according to his Twitter profile) complained to me about me not following enough of our followers, then sent a follow up spam asking if I saw his artice about SEO.
The SEO article was worse than useless. It suggested that you shouldn't be "obvious" & that you should "naturally attract links." Yet the article itself was a thin guest post containing the anchor text search engine optimization deep linking to his own site. The same guy has a "book" titled Findability: Why Search Engine Optimization is Dying.
Why not promote the word findability with the deep link if he wants to claim that SEO is dying? Who writes about how something is dying, yet still targets it instead of the alleged solution they have in hand?
If a person wants to claim that anchor text is effective, or that push marketing is key to success, it is hard to refute those assertations. But if you are pushy & aggressive with anchor text, then the message of "being natural" and "just let things flow" is at best inauthentic, which is why sites like Shitbound.org exist. ;)
Some of the people who wanted to lose the SEO label suggested their reasoning was that the acronym SEO was stigmatized. And yet, only a day after rebranding, these same folks that claim they will hold SEO near and dear forever are already outing SEOs.
Then he told me he wasn’t seeing any results from following all the high-flown rhetoric of the “inbound marketing, content marketing” tool vendor. “Last month, I was around 520 visitors. This month, we’re at 587.”
Want to get to 1,000? Work and wait and believe for another year or two. Want to get to 10,000? Forget it.
You could grow old waiting for the inbound marketing fairy tale to come true.
Of course I commented on the above post & asked Andrew if he could put "inbound marketer" in the post title, since that's who was apparently selling hammed up SEO solutions.
In response to Henshaw's post (& some criticalcomments) calling inbound marketing incomplete marketing Dharmesh Shah wrote:
When we talk about marketing, we position classical outbound techniques as generally being less effective (and more expensive) over time. Not that they’re completely useless — just that they don’t work as well as they once did, and that this trend would continue."
Hugh MacLeod is brilliant with words. He doesn't lose things in translation. His job is distilling messages to their core. And what did his commissions for HubSpot state?
thankfully consiging traditional marketing to the dustbin of history since 2006
traditional marketing is easy. all you have to do is pretend it works
the good news is, your customers are just as sick of traditional marketing as you are
hey, remember when traditional marketing used to work? neither do we
traditional marketing doesn't work. it never did
Claiming that "traditional marketing" doesn't work - and never did, would indeed be claiming that classical marketing techniques are ineffective / useless.
If something "doesn't work" it is thus "useless."
You never hear a person say "my hammer works great, it's useless!"
As always, watch what people do rather than what they say.
When prescription and behavior are not aligned, it is the behavior that is worth emulating.
That's equally true for keyword rich deeplink in a post telling you to let SEO happen naturally and for people who relabel things while telling you not to do what they are doing.
If "traditional marketing" doesn't work AND they are preaching against it, why do they keep doing it?
Measuring PPC and SEO is relatively straightforward. But how do we go about credibly measuring social media campaigns, and wider public relations and audience awareness campaigns?
As the hype level of social media starts to fall, then more questions are asked about return on investment. During the early days of anything, the hype of the new is enough to sustain an endeavor. People don't want to miss out. If their competitors are doing it, that's often seen as good enough reason to do it, too.
You may be familiar with this graph. It's called the hype cycle and is typically used to demonstrate the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies:
Where would social media marketing be on this graph?
I think a reasonable guess, if we're seeing more and more discussion about ROI, is somewhere on the "slope of enlightenment". In this article, we’ll look at ways to measure social media performance by grounding it in the only criteria that truly matter - business fundamentals.
We’ve talked about the Cluetrain Manifesto and how the world changed when corporations could no longer control the message. If the message can no longer be controlled, then measuring the effectiveness of public relations becomes even more problematic.
PR used to be about crafting a message and placing it, and nurturing the relationships that allowed that to happen. With the advent of social media, that’s still true, but the scope has expanded exponentially - everyone can now repeat, run with, distort, reconfigure and reinvent the messages. Controlling the message was always difficult, but now it’s impossible.
On the plus side, it’s now much easier to measure and quantify the effectiveness of public relations activity due to the wealth of web data and tools to track what people are saying, to whom, and when.
The Same, Only Different
As much as things change, the more they stay the same. PR and social media is still about relationships. And getting relationships right pays off:
Today, I want to write about something I’d like to call the “Tim Ferriss Effect.” It’s not exclusive to Tim Ferriss, but he is I believe the marquee example of a major shift that has happened in the last 5 years within the world of book promotion. Here’s the basic idea: When trying to promote a book, the main place you want coverage is on a popular single-author blog or site related to your topic.....The post opened with Tim briefly explaining how he knew me, endorsing me as a person, and describing the book (with a link to my book.) It then went directly into my guest post– there was not even an explicit call to action to buy my book or even any positive statements about my book. An hour later, (I was #45 on Amazon’s best seller list
Public relations is more than about selling, of course. It’s also about managing reputation. It’s about getting audiences to maintain a certain point of view. Social media provides the opportunity to talk to customers and the public directly by using technology to dis-intermediate the traditional gatekeepers.
Can We Really Measure PR & Social Media Performance?
How do you measure the value of a relationship?
How can you really tell if people feel good enough about your product or service to buy it, and that “feeling good” was the direct result of editorial placement by a well-connected public relations professional?
Can you imagine another marketing discipline that used dozens of methods for measuring results? Take search engine marketing for example. The standards are pretty cut and dry: visitors, page views, time on site, cost per click, etc. For email marketing, we have delivery, open rates, click thru, unsubscribes, opt-ins, etc”
In previous articles, we’ve looked at how data-driven marketing can save time and be more effective. The same is true of social media, but given it’s not an exact science, it’s a question of finding an appropriate framework.
Does sending out weekly press releases result in more income? How about tweeting 20 times a day? How much are 5,000 followers on Facebook worth? Without a framework to measure performance, there’s no way of knowing.
Furthermore, there’s no agreed industry standard.
In direct marketing channels, such as SEO and PPC, measurement is fairly straightforward. We count cost per click, number of visitors, conversion rate, time on site, and so on. But how do we measure public relations? How do we measure influence and awareness?
PR firms have often developed their own in-house terms of measurement. The problem is that without industry standards, success criteria can become arbitrary and often used simply to show the agency in a good light and thus validate their fees.
Some agencies use publicity results, such as the number of mentions in the press, or the type of mention i.e. prestigious placement. Some use advertising value equivalent i.e. is what editorial coverage would cost if it were buying advertising space. Some use public opinion measures, such as polls, focus groups and surveys, whilst others compare mentions and placement vs competitors i.e. who has more or better mentions, wins. Most use a combination, depending on the nature of the campaign.
Most business people would agree that measurement is a good thing. If we’re spending money, we need to know what we’re getting for that money. If we provide social media services to clients, we need to demonstrate what we’re doing works, so they’ll devote more budget to it in future. If the competition is using this channel, then we need to know if we’re using it better, or worse, than we are.
Perhaps the most significant reason why we measure is to know if we’ve met a desired outcome. To do that we must ignore gut feelings and focus on whether an outcome was achieved.
Why wouldn’t we measure?
Some people don’t like the accountability. Some feel more comfortable with an intuitive approach. It can be difficult for some to accept that their pet theories have little substance when put to the test. It seems like more work. It seems like more expense. It’s just too hard. When it comes to social media, some question whether it can be done much at all
For proof, look no further than The Atlantic, which shook the social media realm recently with its expose of “dark social” – the idea that the channels we fret over measuring like Facebook and Twitter represent only a small fraction of the social activity that’s really going on. The article shares evidence that reveals that the vast majority of sharing is still done through channels like email and IM that are nearly impossible to measure (and thus, dark).
And it's not like a lot of organizations are falling over themselves to get measurement done:
According to a Hypatia Research report, "Benchmarking Social Community Platform Investments & ROI," only 40% of companies measure social media performance on a quarterly or annual basis, while almost 13% or the organizations surveyed do not measure ROI from social media at all, and another 18% said they do so only on an ad hoc basis. (Hypatia didn't specify what response the other 29% gave.)
If we agree that measurement is a good thing and can lead to greater efficiency and better decision making, then the fact your competition may not be measuring well, or at all, then this presents great opportunity. We should strive to measure social media ROI, as providers or consumers, or it becomes difficult to justify spend. The argument that we can't measure because we don’t know all the effects of our actions isn’t a reason not to measure what we can.
Marketing has never been an exact science.
What Should We Measure?
Measurement should be linked back to business objectives.
In “Measure What Matters”, Katie Delahaye Paine outlines seven steps to social media measurement. I liked these seven steps, because they aren’t exclusive to social media. They’re the basis for measuring any business strategy and similar measures have been used in marketing for a long time.
It’s all about proving something works, and then using the results to enhance future performance. The book is a great source for those interested in reading further on this topic, which I’ll outline here.
1. What Are Your Objectives?
Any marketing objective should serve a business objective. For example, “increase sales by X by October 31st”.
Having specific, business driven objectives gets rid of conjecture and focuses campaigns. Someone could claim that spending 30 days tweeting a new message a day is a great thing to do, but if, at the end of it, a business objective wasn’t met, then what was the point?
Let’s say an objective is “increase sales of shoes compared to last December’s figures”. What might the social strategy look like? It might consist of time-limited offers, as opposed to more general awareness messages. What if the objective was to “get 5,000 New Yorkers to mention the brand before Christmas”? This would lend itself to viral campaigns, targeted locally. Linking the campaign to specific business objectives will likely change the approach.
If you have multiple objectives, you can always split them up into different campaigns so you can measure the effectiveness of each separately. Objectives typically fall into sales, positioning, or education categories.
2. Who Is The Audience?
Who are you talking to? And how will you know if you’ve reached them? Once you have reached them, what is it you want them to do? How will this help your business?
Your target audience is likely varied. Different audiences could be industry people, customers, supplier organizations, media outlets, and so on. Whilst the message may be seen by all audiences, you should be clear about which messages are intended for who, and what you want them to do next. The messages will be different for each group as each group likely picks up on different things.
Attach a value to each group. Is a media organization picking up on a message more valuable than a non-customer doing so? Again, this should be anchored to a business requirement. “We need media outlets following us so they may run more of our stories in future. Our research shows more stories has led to increased sales volume in the past”. Then a measure might be to count the number of media industry followers, and to monitor the number of stories they produce.
3. Know Your Costs
What does it cost you to run social media campaigns? How much time will it take? How does this compare to other types of campaigns? What is your opportunity cost? How much does it cost to measure the campaign?
As Delahaye Paine puts it, it’s the “I” in ROI.
Testing is comparative, so have something to compare against.
You can compare yourself against competitors, and/or your own past performance. You can compare social media campaigns against other marketing campaigns. What do those campaigns usually achieve? Do social media campaigns work better, or worse, in terms of achieving business goals?
In terms of ROI, what’s a social media “page view” worth? You could compare this against the cost of a click in PPC.
5. Define KPIs
Once you’ve determined objectives, defined the audience, and established benchmarks, you should establish criteria for success.
For example, the objective might be to increase media industry followers. The audience is the media industry and the benchmark is the current number of media industry followers. The KPI would be the number of new media industry followers signed up, as measured by classifying followers into subgroups and conducting a headcount.
Measuring the KPI will differ depending on objective, of course. If you’re measuring the number of mentions in the press vs your competitor, that’s pretty easy to quantify.
“Raising awareness” is somewhat more difficult, however once you have a measurement system in place, you can start to break down the concept of “awareness” into measurable components. Awareness of what? By whom? What constitutes awareness? How to people signal they’re aware of you? And so on.
6. Data Collection Tools
How will you collect measurement data?
Content analysis of social or traditional media
Primary research via online, mail or phone survey
There are an overwhelming number of tools available, and outside the scope of this article. No tool can measure “reputation” or “awareness” or “credibility” by itself, but can produce usable data if we break those areas down into suitable metrics. For example, “awareness” could be quantified by “page views + a survey of a statistically valid sample”.
Half the battle is asking the right questions.
7. Take Action
A measurement process is about iteration. You do something, get the results back, act on them and make changes, and arrive at a new status quo. You then do something starting from that new point, and so on. It’s an ongoing process of optimization.
Were objectives met? What conclusions can you draw?
Those seven steps will be familiar to anyone who has measured marketing campaigns and business performance. They’re grounded in the fundamentals. Without relating social media metrics back to the underlying fundamentals, we can never be sure if what we’re doing is making or a difference, or worthwhile. Is 5,000 Twitter followers a good thing?
What business problem does it address?
Did You Make A Return?
You invested time and money. Did you get a return?
If you’ve linked your social media campaigns back to business objectives you should have a much clearer idea. Your return will depend on the nature of your business, of course, but it could be quantified in terms of sales, cost savings, avoiding costs or building an audience.
In terms of SEO, we’ve long advocated building brand. Having people conduct brand searches is a form of insurance against Google demoting your site. If you have brand search volume, and Google don’t return you for brand searches, then Google looks deficient.
So, one goal of social media that gels with SEO is to increase brand awareness. You establish a benchmark of branded searches based on current activity. You run your social media campaigns, and then see if branded searches increase.
Granted, this is a fuzzy measure, especially if you have other awareness campaigns running, as you can’t be certain cause and effect. However, it’s a good start. You could give it a bit more depth by integrating a short poll for visitors i.e. “did you hear about us on Twitter/Facebook/Other?”.
Mechanics Of Measurement
Measuring social media isn’t that difficult. In fact, we could just as easily use search metrics in many cases. What is the cost per view? What is the cost per click? Did the click from a social media campaign convert to desired action? What was your business objective for the social media campaign? To get more leads? If so, then count the leads. How much did each lead cost to acquire? How does that cost compare to other channels, like PPC? What is the cost of customer acquisition via social media?
In this way, we could split social media out into the customer service side and marketing side. Engaging with your customers on Facebook may not be all that measurable in terms of direct marketing effects, it’s more of a customer service function. As such, budget for the soft side of social media need not come out of marketing budgets, but customer service budgets. This could still be measured, or course, by running customer satisfaction surveys.
Is Social Media Marketing Public Relations?
Look around the web for definitions of the differences between PR and social media, and you’ll find a lot of vague definitions.
Social media is a tool used often used for the purpose of public relations. The purpose is to create awareness and nurture and guide relationships.
Public relations is sometimes viewed it as a bit of a scam. It’s an area that sucks money, yet can often struggle to prove its worth, often relying on fuzzy, feel-good proclamations of success and vague metrics. It doesn’t help that clients can have unrealistic expectations of PR, and that some PR firms are only too happy to promise the moon:
PR is nothing like the dark, scary world that people make it out to be—but it is a new one for most. And knowing the ropes ahead of time can save you from setting impossibly high expectations or getting overpromised and oversold by the firm you hire. I’ve seen more than my fair share of clients bringing in a PR firm with the hopes that it’ll save their company or propel a small, just-launched start-up into an insta-Facebook. And unfortunately, I’ve also seen PR firms make these types of promises. Guess what? They’re never kept
Internet marketing, in general, has a credibility problem when it doesn’t link activity back to business objectives.
Part of that perception, in relation to social media, comes from the fact public relations is difficult to control:
The main conduit to mass publics, particularly with a consumer issue such as rail travel or policing, are the mainstream media. Unlike advertising, which has total control of its message, PR cannot convey information without the influence of opinion, much of it editorial. How does the consumer know what is fact, and what has influenced the presentation of that fact?
But lack of control of the message, as the Cluetrain Manifesto points out, is the nature of the environment in which we exist. Our only choice, if we are to prosper in the digital environment, is to embrace the chaos.
Shouldn’t PR just happen? If you’re good, people just know? Well, even Google, that well known, engineering-driven advertising company has PR deeply embedded from almost day one:
David Krane was there from day one as Google's first public relations official. He's had a hand in almost every single public launch of a Google product since the debut of Google.com in 1999.
Good PR is nurtured. It’s a process. The way to find out if it’s good PR or ineffective PR is to measure it. PR isn’t a scam, anymore so than any other marketing activity is a scam. We can find out if it’s worthwhile only by tracking and measuring and linking that measurement back to a business case. Scams lack transparency.
The way to get transparency is to measure and quantify.
Do users find big headlines more relevant? Does using long text lead to more, or less, visitor engagement? Is that latest change to the shopping cart going to make things worse? Are your links just the right shade of blue?
If you want to put an end to tiresome subjective arguments about page length, or the merits of your clients latest idea, which is to turn their website pink, then adopting an experimental process for web publishing can be a good option.
If you don’t currently use an experiment-driven publishing approach, then this article is for you. We’ll look at ways to bake experiments into your web site, the myriad of opportunities testing creates, how it can help your SEO, and ways to mitigate cultural problems.
The merits of any change should be derived from the results of the change under a controlled test. This process is common in PPC, however many SEO’s will no doubt wonder how such an approach will affect their SEO.
We’ve gotten several questions recently about whether website testing—such as A/B or multivariate testing—affects a site’s performance in search results. We’re glad you’re asking, because we’re glad you’re testing! A/B and multivariate testing are great ways of making sure that what you’re offering really appeals to your users
Post-panda, being more relevant to visitors, not just machines, is important. User engagement is more important. If you don’t closely align your site with user expectations and optimize for engagement, then it will likely suffer.
The new SEO, at least as far as Panda is concerned, is about pushing your best quality stuff and the complete removal of low-quality or overhead pages from the indexes. Which means it’s not as easy anymore to compete by simply producing pages at scale, unless they’re created with quality in mind. Which means for some sites, SEO just got a whole lot harder.
Experiments can help us achieve greater relevance.
If It ‘Aint Broke, Fix It
One reason for resisting experiment-driven decisions is to not mess with success. However, I’m sure we all suspect most pages and processes can be made better.
If we implement data-driven experiments, we’re more likely to spot the winners and losers in the first place. What pages lead to the most sales? Why? What keywords are leading to the best outcomes? We identify these pages, and we nurture them. Perhaps you already experiment in some areas on your site, but what would happen if you treated most aspects of your site as controlled experiments?
We also need to cut losers.
If pages aren’t getting much engagement, we need to identify them, improve them, or cut them. The Panda update was about levels of engagement, and too many poorly performing pages will drag your site down. Run with the winners, cut the losers, and have a methodology in place that enables you to spot them, optimize them, and cut them if they aren’t performing.
Testing Methodology For Marketers
Tests are based on the same principles used to conduct scientific experiments. The process involves data gathering, designing experiments, running experiments, analyzing the results, and making changes.
1. Set A Goal
A goal should be simple i.e. “increase the signup rate of the newsletter”.
We could fail in this goal (decreased signups), succeed (increased signups), or stay the same. The goal should also deliver genuine business value.
There can be often multiple goals. For example, “increase email signups AND Facebook likes OR ensure signups don’t decrease by more than 5%”. However, if you can get it down to one goal, you’ll make life easier, especially when starting out. You can always break down multiple goals into separate experiments.
2. Create A Hypothesis
What do you suspect will happen as a result of your test? i.e. “if we strip all other distractions from the email sign up page, then sign-ups will increase”.
The hypothesis can be stated as an improvement, or preventing a negative, or finding something that is wrong. Mostly, we’re concerned with improving things - extracting more positive performance out of the same pages, or set of pages.
“Will the new video on the email sign-up page result in more email signups?” Only one way to find out. And once you have found out, you can run with it or replace it safe in the knowledge it's not just someone's opinion. The question will move from “just how cool is this video!” (subjective) to “does this video result in more email sign-ups?”. A strategy based on experiments eliminates most subjective questions, or shifts them to areas that don’t really affect the business case.
The video sales page significantly increased the number of visitors who clicked to the price/guarantee page by 46.15%....Video converts! It did so when mentioned in a “call to action” (a 14.18% increase) and also when used to sell (35% and 46.15% increases in two different tests)
When crafting a hypothesis, you should keep business value clearly in mind. If the hypothesis suggests a change that doesn’t add real value, then testing it is likely a waste of time and money. It creates an opportunity cost for other tests that do matter.
When selecting areas to test, you should start by looking at the areas which matter most to the business, and the majority of users. For example, an e-commerce site would likely focus on product search, product descriptions, and the shopping cart. The About Page - not so much.
Order areas to test in terms of importance and go for the low hanging fruit first. If you can demonstrate significant gains early on, then it will boost your confidence and validate your approach. As experimental testing becomes part of your process, you can move on more granular testing. Ideally, you want to end up with a culture whereby most site changes have some sort of test associated with them, even if it’s just to compare performance against the previous version.
Look through your stats to find pages or paths with high abandonment rates or high bounce rates. If these pages are important in terms of business value, then prioritize these for testing. It’s important to order these pages in terms of business value, because high abandonment rates or bounce rates on pages that don’t deliver value isn’t a significant issue. It’s probably more a case of “should these pages exist at all”?
3. Run An A/B or Multivariate Test
Two of the most common testing methodologies in direct response marketing are A/B testing and multivariate testing.
A/B Testing, otherwise known as split testing, is when you compare one version of a page against another. You collect data how each page performs, relative to the other.
Version A is typically the current, or favored version of a page, whilst page B differs slightly, and is used as a test against page A. Any aspect of the page can be tested, from headline, to copy, to images, to color, all with the aim of improving a desired outcome. The data regarding performance of each page is tested, the winner is adopted, and the loser rejected.
Multivariate testing is more complicated. Multivariate testing is when more than one element is tested at any one time. It’s like performing multiple A/B tests on the same page, at the same time. Multivariate testing can test the effectiveness of many different combinations of elements.
Which method should you use?
In most cases, in my experience, A/B testing is sufficient, but it depends. In the interest of time, value and sanity, it’s more important and productive to select the right things to test i.e. the changes that lead to the most business value.
As your test culture develops, you can go more and more granular. The slightly different shade of blue might be important to Google, but it’s probably not that important to sites with less traffic. But, keep in mind, assumptions should be tested ;) Your mileage may vary.
There are various tools available to help you run these test. I have no association with any of these, but here’s a few to check out:
Statistical significance is used to refer to two separate notions: the p-value, the probability that observations as extreme as the data would occur by chance in a given single null hypothesis; or the Type I error rate α (false positive rate) of a statistical hypothesis test, the probability of incorrectly rejecting a given null hypothesis in favor of a second alternative hypothesis
In short, you need enough visitors taking an action to decide it is not likely to have occurred randomly, but is most likely attributable to a specific cause i.e. the change you made.
5. Run With The Winners
Run with the winners, cut the losers, rinse and repeat. Keep in mind that you may need to retest at different times, as the audience can change, or their motivations change, depending on underlying changes in your industry. Testing, like great SEO, is best seen as an ongoing process.
Make the most of every visitor who arrives on your site, because they’re only ever going to get more expensive.
Here’s an interesting seminar where the results of hundreds of experiments were reduced down to three fundamental lessons:
a) How can I increase specify? Use quantifiable, specific information as it relates to the value proposition
b) How can I increase continuity? Always carry across the key message using repetition
c) How can I increase relevance? Use metrics to ask “why”
Often, tests will fail.
Changing content can sometimes make little, if any, difference. Other times, the difference will be significant. But even when tests fail to show a difference, it still gives you information you can use. These might be areas in which designers, and other vested interests, can stretch their wings, and you know that it won’t necessarily affect business value in terms of conversion.
Sometimes, the test itself wasn't designed well. It might not have been given enough time to run. It might not have been linked to a business case. Tests tend to get better as we gain more experience, but having a process in place is the important thing.
You might also find that your existing page works just great and doesn’t need changing. Again, it’s good to know. You can then try replicating this successes in areas where the site isn’t performing so well.
Failure and mistakes are inevitable. Knowing this, we put mechanisms in place to spot failures and mistakes early, rather than later. Structured failure is a badge of honor!
Thomas Edison performed 9,000 experiments before coming up with a successful version of the light bulb. Students of entrepreneurship talk about the J-curve of returns: the failures come early and often and the successes take time. America has proved to be more entrepreneurial than Europe in large part because it has embraced a culture of “failing forward” as a common tech-industry phrase puts it: in Germany bankruptcy can end your business career whereas in Silicon Valley it is almost a badge of honour
Or perhaps it’s because some of the best ideas in tech today have come from those that weren’t so good. (Remember, Apple's first tablet devices was called the Newton.)
There’s a word used to describe this get-over-it mentality that I heard over and over on my trip through Silicon Valley and San Francisco this week: “Pivot“
Experimentation, and measuring results, will highlight failure. This can be a hard thing to take, and especially hard to take when our beloved, pet theories turn out to be more myth than reality. In this respect, testing can seem harsh and unkind. But failure should be seen for what it is - one step in a process leading towards success. It’s about trying stuff out in the knowledge some of it isn’t going to work, and some of it will, but we can’t be expected to know which until we try it.
In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks about the benefits of using lean methodologies to take a product from not-so-good to great, using systematic testing”
If your first product sucks, at least not too many people will know about it. But that is the best time to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them to make the product better. “It is inevitable that the first product is going to be bad in some ways,” he says. The Lean Startup methodology is a way to systematically test a company’s product ideas.
Fail early and fail often. “Our goal is to learn as quickly as possible,” he says
Given testing can be incremental, we don’t have to fail big. Swapping one graphic position for another could barely be considered a failure, and that’s what a testing process is about. It’s incremental, and iterative, and one failure or success doesn’t matter much, so long as it’s all heading in the direction of achieving a business goal.
It’s about turning the dogs into winners, and making the winners even bigger winners.
Feel Vs Experimentation
Web publishing decisions are often based on intuition, historical precedence - “we’ve always done it this way” - or by copying the competition. Graphic designers know about colour psychology, typography and layout. There is plenty of room for conflict.
Douglas Bowden, a graphic designer at Google, left Google because he felt the company relied too much on data-driven decisions, and not enough on the opinions of designers:
Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’retesting 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.
That probably doesn’t come as a surprise to any Google watchers. Google is driven by engineers. In Google’s defense, they have such a massive user base that minor changes can have significant impact, so their approach is understandable.
Putting emotion, and habit, aside is not easy.
However, experimentation doesn’t need to exclude visual designers. Visual design is valuable. It helps visitors identify and remember brands. It can convey professionalism and status. It helps people make positive associations.
But being relevant is also design.
Adopting an experimentation methodology means designers can work on a number of different designs and get to see how the public really does react to their work. Design X converted better than design Y, layout Q works best for form design, buttons A, B and C work better than buttons J, K and L, and so on. It’s a further opportunity to validate creative ideas.
Part of getting experimentation right has to do with an organizations culture. Obviously, it’s much easier if everyone is working towards a common goal i.e. “all work, and all decisions made, should serve a business goal, as opposed to serving personal ego”.
All aspects of web publishing can be tested, although asking the right questions about what,to test is important. Some aspects may not make a measurable difference in terms of conversion. A logo, for example. A visual designer could focus on that page element, whilst the conversion process might rely heavily on the layout of the form. Both the conversion expert and the design expert get to win, yet not stamp on each others toes.
One of the great aspects of data-driven decision making is that common, long-held assumptions get challenged, often with surprising results. How long does it take to film a fight scene? The movie industry says 30 days.
Experts go with what they know. And they’ll often insist something needs to take a long time. But when you don’t have tons of resources, you need to ask if there’s a simpler, judo way to get the impact you desire. Sometimes there’s a better way than the “best” way. I thought of this while watching “The Fighter” over the weekend. There’s a making of extra on the DVD where Mark Wahlberg, who starred in and produced the film, talks about how all the fight scenes were filmed with an actual HBO fight crew. He mentions that going this route allowed them to shoot these scenes in a fraction of the time it usually takes
How many aspects of your site are based on assumption? Could those assumptions be masking opportunities or failure?
Some experiments, if poorly designed, don’t lead to more business success. If an experiment isn’t focused on improving a business case, then it’s probably just wasted time. That time could have been better spent devising and running better experiments.
In Agile software design methodologies, the question is always asked “how does this change/feature provide value to the customer”. The underlying motive is “how does this change/feature provide value to the business”. This is a good way to prioritize test cases. Those that potentially provide the most value, such as landing page optimization on PPC campaigns, are likely to have a higher priority than, say, features available to forum users.
I hope this article has given you some food for thought and that you'll consider adopting some experiment-based processes to your mix. Here's some of the sources used in this article, and further reading:
We looked at the problems with display advertising. Federated Media abandoned the format and will adopt a more “social” media strategy.
We also looked at the rise of Native Advertising, which is advertising that tightly integrates with content to the point where it’s difficult to tell the two apart. This opens up a new angle for SEOs looking to place links.
The reason the advertising gap isn’t closing is due to a number of factors. It’s partly historical, but it’s also to do with effectiveness, especially when it comes to display advertising. If advertisers aren’t seeing a return, then they won’t advertise.
Inventory is expanding a lot faster than the ability or desire of advertisements to fill it, which is not a good situation for publishers. So, internet publishers are experimenting with ideas on how to be more effective. If native advertising and social are deemed more effective, then that is the way publishers will go.
People just don't like being advertised at.
The ClueTrain Manifesto
The Cluetrain Manifesto predicted much of what we see happening today. Written in 2000 by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger, the Cluetrain Manifesto riffed on the idea that markets are conversations, and consumers aren't just passive observers:
A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies
That seems obvious now, but it was a pretty radical idea back then. The book was written before blogs became popular. It was way before anyone had heard of a social network, or before anyone had done any tweeting.
Consumers were no longer passive, they were just as likely to engage and create, and they would certainly talk back, and ultimately shape the message if they didn't like it. The traditional top-down advertising industry, and publishing industry, has been turned on its head. The consumers are publishers, and they’re not sitting around being broadcast at.
The advertising industry has been struggling to find answers, not entirely successfully, ever since.
Move Away From Display And Towards Engagement
In order for marketing to be effective on the web, it needs to be engaging to an audience that ignores the broadcast message. This is the reason advertising is starting to look more like content. It ‘s trying to engage people using the forms they already use in their personal communication.
For example, this example mimics a blog post encouraging people to share. It pretty much is a blog post, but it’s also an advertisement. It meets the customer on their terms, in their space and on their level. For better or worse, the lines are growing increasingly blurred.
Facebook's Managing Editor, Dan Fletcher, has just stood down, reasoning:
The company "doesn't need reporters," Fletcher said, because it has a billion members who can provide content.You guys are the reporters," Fletcher told the audience. "There is no more engaging content Facebook could produce than you talking to your family and friends.
People aren't reporters in the journalistic sense, but his statement suggests where the revenue for advertising lies, which is in between people’s conversations. As a side note, you may notice that article is “brought to you by our sponsor”. Most of the links go through bit.ly, however they could just as easily be straight links.
The implication is that a lot of people aren't even listening to reporters anymore, they want to know about the world as filtered through the eyes of their friends and families. The latter has happened since time began, but only recently has advertising leaped directly into that conversation. Whether that is a good thing or not, or welcomed, is another matter, but it it is happening.
Two Types Of Advertisements
Advertising takes two main forms. Institutional, or “brand” advertising, and direct response advertising. SEOs are mainly concerned with direct response advertising.
Direct-Response Marketing is a type of marketing designed to generate an immediate response from consumers, where each consumer response (and purchase) can be measured, and attributed to individual advertisements. This form of marketing is differentiated from other marketing approaches, primarily because there are no intermediaries such as retailers between the buyer and seller, and therefore the buyer must contact the seller directly to purchase products or services.
However, brand advertising is the form around which much of the advertising industry is based:
Brand ads, also known as "space ads," strive to build (or refresh) the prospect's awareness and favorable view of the company or its product or service. For example, most billboards are brand ads.
Online, the former works well, but only if the product or service suits direct advertising. Generally speaking, a lot of new-to-market products and services, and luxury goods, don’t suit direct advertising particularly well, unless they’re being marketed on complementary attributes, such as price or convenience.
The companies that produce goods and services that don’t suit direct marketing aren't spending as much online.
But curious changes are afoot.
What's Happening At Facebook?
Those who advertise on Facebook will have noticed the click-thru rate. Generally, it's pretty low, suggesting direct response isn't working well in that environment.
Click-through rates on Facebook ads only averaged 0.05% in 2010, down from 0.06% in 2009 and well short of what’s considered to be the industry average of 0.10%. That’s according to a Webtrends report that examined 11,000 Facebook ads, first reported upon by ClickZ.
It’s not really surprising, give Facebook’s user base are Cluetrain passengers, even if most have never heard of it:
Facebook, a hugely popular free service that’s supported solely through advertising, yet is packed with users who are actively hostile to the idea of being marketed to on their cherished social network......this is what I hear from readers every time I write about the online ad economy, especially ads on Facebook: “I don’t know how Facebook will ever make any money—I never click on Web ads!
But a new study indicates click-thru rates on Facebook might not matter much. The display value of the advertising has been linked back to product purchases, and the results are an eye-opener:
Whether you know it or not—even if you consider yourself skeptical of marketing—the ads you see on Facebook are working. Sponsored messages in your feed are changing your behavior—they’re getting you and your friends to buy certain products instead of others, and that’s happening despite the fact that you’re not clicking, and even if you think you’re ignoring the ads......his isn’t conjecture. It’s science. It’s based on a remarkable set of in-depth studies that Facebook has conducted to show whether and how its users respond to ads on the site. The studies demonstrate that Facebook ads influence purchases and that clicks don’t matter
Granted, such a study is self-serving, but if it's true, and translates to many advertisers, then that's interesting. Display, engagement, institutional and direct marketing all seem to be melding together into "content". SEOs who want to get their links in the middle of content will be in there, too.
You may notice the Cluetrain-style language in the following Forbes post:
Some innovative companies, like Vine and smartsy, are catching on to this wave by creating apps and software that allows a dialogue between a brand and its audience when and where the consumer wants. Such technology opens a realm of nearly endless possibilities of content creation while increasing conversion rates dramatically. Audience participation isn’t just allowed; it’s encouraged. Hell, it’s necessary. By not only providing consumers with information in the moment of their interest, but also engaging them in conversation and empowering them to create their own content, we can drastically increase the relevancy of messaging and its authenticity.
Technology Has Finally Caught Up With The Cluetrain
Before the internet, it wasn’t really possible to engage consumers in conversations, except in very limited ways. Technology wasn’t up to the task.
But now it is.
The conversation was heralded in the Cluetrain Manifesto over a decade ago. People don’t want to just be passive consumers of marketing messages – they want engagement. The new advertising trends are all about increasing that level of engagement, and advertisers are doing it, in part, by blurring the lines between advertising and content.
Following my article about paywalls, a reader raised a point about “Tribes”. I’m paraphrasing the ensuing conversation we had, but I think it could be summarised as:
You’re wrong! The way to succeed on the internet is to build a tribe! Give your content away to the tribe! Grow the tribe!
An internet tribe is “an unofficial community of people who share a common interest, and usually who are loosely affiliated with each other through social media or other internet mechanisms”.
The use of the term dates back to 2003. More recently, Seth Godin wrote a book on the topic. As did Patrick Hanlon. A tribe could be characterized as a special interest group, a demographic, or a group of people interested in the same thing - plus internet.
So, is cultivating a tribe by giving everything away for free a better approach than locking information behind a paywall? If we lock some information away behind a paywall, does that mean we can’t build a tribe? BTW: I'm not suggesting Seth or Patrick assert such things, these issues came out of the conversation I had with the reader.
Well, It Depends
People don't have to build a paywall in order to be successful. Or build a tribe in order to be successful. Either approach could be totally the wrong thing to do.
If anyone found the article on paywalls confusing, then hopefully I can clarify. The article about paywalls was an exploration. We looked at the merits, and pitfalls, involved.
Paywalls, like tribes, will not work for everyone. I suspect most people would agree that there is no “One True System” when it comes to internet marketing, which is why we write about a wide range of marketing ideas. Each idea is a tool people could use, depending on their goals and circumstances, but certainly not proposed as being one-size-fits all. In any case, having a paywall does not mean one cannot build a tribe. The two approaches aren't mutually exclusive.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at tribes and how to decide if a certain marketing approach is right for you.
Cart Before The Horse
"Cultivating a tribe" is a strategy.
Will everyone win using this strategy?
Like any strategy, it should be justified by the business case. The idea behind tribes is that you form a group of people with similar interests, and then lead that group, and then, given appropriate and effective leadership, people help spread your message far and wide, grow the tribe, and eventually you will make money from them.
There is nothing wrong with this approach, and it works well for some businesses. However, like any marketing strategy, there is overhead involved. There is also an opportunity cost involved. And just like any marketing strategy, the success of the strategy should be measured in terms of return on investment. Is the cost of building, growing and maintaining a tribe lower than the return derived from it?
If not, then it fails.
How To Not Make Money From A Tribe
During the conversation I had with the reader, it was intimated that if someone can’t make money from a tribe, then it’s their own fault. After all, if someone can get a lot of people together by giving away their content, then money naturally follows, right?
The idea that profit is the natural result of building an audience resulted in the dot.com crash of 2000.
Many web companies at that time focused on building an audience first and worried about how it was all going to pay off later. Webvan, Pets.com, boo.com, and many of the rest didn’t suffer from lack of awareness, but from a lack of a sound business case and from a failure to execute.
We’ve had digital tribes, in various forms, since the beginning of the internet. Actually, they predate the internet . One early example of a digital tribe was the BBSs, a dial-in community. These tribes were replaced by internet forums and places, such as The Well.
Many internet forums don’t make a great deal of money. Many are run for fun at break-even, or a loss. Some make a lot of money. Whether they make a loss, a little money or a lot of money depends not on the existence of the tribe that surrounds them, as they all have tribes, but on the underlying business model.
Does the tribe translate into enough business activity in order to be profitable? How much is a large tribe of social-media aficionados interested in “free stuff” worth? More than a small demographic of Facebook-challenged people interested in high margin services? Creating a tribe to help target the latter group might possibly work, but there are probably better approaches to take.
Does SEOBook.com have a “tribe”? Should we always be looking to “grow the tribe”?
We don’t tend to characterize our approach in terms of tribes. At SEOBook.com, we do a lot of things to maintain a particular focus. We tend to write long, in-depth pieces on topics we hope people find interesting as opposed to chasing keyword terms. We don’t run an endless series of posts on optimizing meta tags. We don’t cover every tiny bit of search news. We focus almost exclusively on the needs of the intermediate-to-expert search professional. We could do many things to “grow the tribe”, but that would run counter to our objectives. It would dilute the offering. We could have a "free trial" but the noise it would create in our member forums would lower the value of the forums to existing community members.
We do offer some free tools available to everyone, but when it comes to the paid parts of the site we leave it up to individuals to decide if they think they're a good fit for our community. If a person has issues with the site before becoming a paid member, we doubt they would ever becoming a long-lasting community member, so our customer service to people who have not yet become customers is effectively nil. In short, we don’t want to run the hamster treadmill of managing a huge tribe when it doesn’t support the business case.
The Good Things About Tribes
Tribes can help spread the word. People tell people something, and they tell people, and the audience grows and grows.
They’re great for political groups, movements, consultants, charities, and any endeavour with a strong social focus. They tend to suit sectors where the people in that sector spend a lot of time “living digitally”.
As a marketing approach, building tribes is well-suited to the charismatic, relentless self-promoter. A lot of tribes tend to orient around such individuals.
The Problems With Tribes
Not everyone can be a leader. Not everyone has got the time to be a relentless self-promoter and the time spent undertaking such activity can present a high opportunity cost if that’s not how your target market rolls. Perhaps a relentless focus on PPC, or SEO, or another channel will pay higher dividends.
There is also an ever-growing noise level in the social media channels, but the attention level remains relatively constant. The medium is forever being squeezed. Is blogging/facebooking/tweeting all day with the aim of building a tribe really a useful thing to be doing? Only metrics can tell us that, so make sure you monitor ‘em!
To build a big tribe in any competitive space takes serious work and it takes a long time. Many people will fail using that approach. Not only are some people not cut out to lead, the numbers don’t work if everyone used this method. If everyone who led a tribe also followed hundreds of other people leading their own tribes, then there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to get anything else done.
It will not be an efficient marketing approach for many.
Getting People To Follow Is Not The Goal Of Business
I know of a company that just got bought out for a few million.
Sounds great, right. However, I know they carry a lot of debt and their business model puts them on a downward trajectory. This site has a massive “tribe”. This site is number one in their niche. People tweet, Facebook, follow them, sing their praises, they engage up, down, left, right and center. They’ve got the internet tribe thing down pat, and their tribe buys their stuff.
The business is based on low prices. The tribe is fixated on “getting a great price”. This business is vulnerable to competitors as that tribes loyalty, that took so long to build, is based on price - which is no loyalty at all. Perhaps they achieved their exit strategy, and did what they needed to do, but growing a massive and active internet tribe didn't prevent them being swallowed by a larger competitor. The larger competitor doesn't really have a tribe, but focuses on traditional channels.
Without getting the fundamentals right, a tribe, or any other marketing strategy, is unlikely to pay off. The danger in listening to gurus is they can be fadish. There is money in evangelizing the bright, shiny new marketing idea that sounds really good.
But beware of placing the cart before the horse. Marketing is a numbers game that comes down to ROI. Does building the tribe make enough money to justify serving the tribe?
Having followers is no bad thing. Just makes sure they’re the right followers, for the right reasons, and acquiring them supports a sound business case :)
“Information wants to be free” was a phrase coined by Stewart Brand, a counter-culture figure and publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog.
This was the context of the quote:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other
Brand talks about distribution cost, but not the production cost. Whatever our views on information freedom, I think everyone can agree that those who create information need to pay their bills. If creating information is how someone makes their living, then information must make an adequate return.
Information production is not free.
The distribution cost has been driven down to near zero on the internet, but it is the distributors, not content creators, who make most of the money. “Information wants to be free”, far from being an anti-corporate battle-cry, suits the business model of fat mega-corporations, like Google, who make money bundling “free” content and running advertising next to it. In this environment, the content creator can often struggle to make a satisfactory return.
So, content creators have been experimenting with models that reject the notion information must be free. One of these models involves the paywall, which we’ll examine today.
Content Disappearing Behind The Wall
More than 300 US dailies now have paywalls, and that number is growing. Big players, like the New York Times and the Financial Times, have reported increasing paid subscription numbers for their online content:
The FT reported that it has breached the 250,000 subscriber mark, having grown digital subscriptions 30% during the last year. The FT charges about $390 for an annual subscription to its website, which would indicate total digital subscription revenues of nearly $100 million if everyone was paying the full annual price. However, the actual total is almost certainly lower than that, since print subscribers pay discounted fee and not all subscriptions are annual. However, the performance is still impressive. The FT said 100,000 of those subscriptions are from corporations
Their paywall experiment appears to be paying off. However, critics are quick to point out that those newspapers enjoy an established reputation, and that lesser-known media outlets might have trouble emulating such success.
Certainly, this seems to be the case for the Rupert Murdoch owned “The Daily” which went belly-up due to poor subscription numbers:
The Daily, a boldly innovative publication – in the platform sense – is over. It’s never pleasant to see a newspaper of any form go under. However, there are lessons to be made from its birth, growth, and eventual demise that have wide implications for the content industry that are worth discussing.Here’s the raw truth: The Daily lost too much money and didn’t have a clear path to profitability, or something close to it. News Corp stated this succinctly, saying that the paper’s key problem was that it “could not find a large enough audience quickly enough to convince us the business model was sustainable in the long-term.
Even with the clout of News Corporation behind it, the Daily folded in less than two years. It was reportedly losing an estimated $30 million annually.
But was size was part of its problem? Did that paywall model fail due to high overhead and the relative inflexibility of a traditional media operation? Perhaps success involves leveraging off an existing reputation, innovation and running a tight ship?
Basically, we’ve gotten a third of a million dollars in 24 hours, with close to 12,000 paid subscribers [at last count],” Sullivan wrote today. “On average, readers paid almost $8 more than we asked for. To say we’re thrilled would obscure the depth of our gratitude and relief.
Sullivan doesn’t have the overhead of The Daily, so his break-even point is significantly lower. It looks like Sullivan may have hit on a model that works for him.
Another small media outfit, called The Magazine run by Marco Arment, started as an “IOS newstand publication for geeks”. Arment was known to his audience as he was the lead developer on Tumblr and and developer of Instapaper.
The Magazine publishes four articles every two weeks for $1.99 per month with a 7-day free trial. It started off as an app for the iPad but has since migrated to the web, but behind a paywall.
There’s room for another category between individuals and major publishers, and that’s where The Magazine sits. It’s a multi-author, truly modern digital magazine that can appeal to an audience bigger than a niche but smaller than the readership of The New York Times. This is what a modern magazine can be, not a 300 MB stack of static page images laid out manually by 100 people. The Magazine supports writers in the most basic, conventional way that, in the modern web context, actually seems least conventional and riskiest: by paying them to write. Since I’m keeping production costs low, I’m able to pay writers reasonably today, and very competitively with high-end print magazines in the future if The Magazine gets enough subscribers. A risk, but I’m confident. Here goes”
Arment walked me through the numbers. He has 25,000 subscribers who pay $1.99 a month. Apple takes a 30 percent cut, leaving Arment about $35,000 a month.his cost of putting out the magazine is a bit over $20,000 per month. It comes out every two weeks, and each issue costs about $10,000. Roughly $4,000 goes to writers. The rest goes mostly to copy editors, illustrators, photographers and editors
Then there is Paul Carr, ex-Tech Crunch journalist who started NSFW Corporation, a web publication that has, up until recently, sat entirely behind a paywall. It’s a general interest and humor site that, by Pauls’ own admission, doesn’t need a ton of readers, just enough readers prepared to pay $3 a month for access so they can make money. He figures if he gets 30K paying subscribers, then that’s enough to break even.
Interestingly, he's announced that they are diversifying into print. He claims NSFW will be profitable by the end of the year:
They’ll curse at SEO-driven headlines and at a public unwilling to pay even a few dollars for journalism that costs many thousand times that to produce. .......Rather than mourning the loss of long-form investigative pieces, we’re combining an online subscription model with ebooks and even print to make that kind of journalism profitable again. Instead of resorting to cheap tricks to jack up page views to sell another million belly fat ads, we’re inventing sponsorship products that provide more value to sponsors as editorial quality (not quantity) increases.....
It’s probably too early to draw many firm conclusions on the paywall experiment, although it’s clear that some operators are making it work.
News is a difficult form of content to monetarize on the web. It’s ephemeral, time-sensitive and ultimately disposable. However, if you’re providing educational and consultancy content, then it should be easier. If you do publish this type of content, how much of this should you be giving away? And if you do, what return are you getting back? Do you have a way to measure it?
The answers will be different for everyone, but they are interesting questions to consider. Many publishers are making paywalls work. And these people are making money from web content without exclusively pandering to flaky search engines in the hope some traffic may come their way.
The free content in exchange for free traffic “deal” is simply no longer worthwhile for many publishers.
I hastily built a basic site while I was waiting for the app to be approved. I only needed it to do two things: send people to the App Store, and show something at the sharing URLs for each article. Since The Magazine had no ads, and people could only subscribe in the app, I figured there was no reason to show full article text on the site — it could only lose money and dilute the value of subscribing. That was the biggest mistake I’ve made with The Magazine to date
The Magazine is now offering one free article view per month. The casual reader will still be able to assess the value and conversation and interaction can still happen, whilst most of the valuable content sits behind a paywall, helping ensure content creators paid.
Taking a different approach, The Times of London erected a “Berlin Wall”, locking content inside a fortress. How did that work out?
While the Times once had 10m monthly unique visitors, figures in September show that it has only managed to attract 100,000 digital-only subscribers, although print subscribers are able to access the site as well. As a result, Murdoch was recently forced to capitulate and allow Google and other search engines partial access to his content
When it comes to paywalls, mixed models appear to work best. Some content needs to appear where everyone can see it. Some content needs to appear in search engines and social media. The question is how much, and via what channel?
Some sites use a free-on-the-web model, whilst charging for mobile access. Other’s use a freemium model where some content is free in order to entice people to pay for premium content. One of the more successful models, of late, has been a metered approach.
The New York Times allows you to view five free pages if you come via a search engine because they get some referral revenue from the search sites. If you come to the site via Facebook, Twitter, blogs or other social media it does not count towards your monthly allowance
People don’t like to be forced into paying for content, but don't seem to mind paying once the value has been demonstrated. One of the most successful apps in the Apple store, Angry Birds, enticed people to pay by giving the basic game away. Once they could see the value, people were more willing to pay.
Fred Wilson labels this “ex post facto monetization” — “you get paid after the fact, not before.” Under this strategy, you let people receive the value of your product first, then pay later — because they want to. Those who do sign up willingly are likely to be long-term, loyal customers. Those who never sign up probably haven’t discovered enough personal value and would have unsubscribed after a month even if they had initially been forced to subscribe
When we launched our digital subscription plan we knew there were loopholes to access our content beyond the allotted number of articles each month. We have made some adjustments and will continue to make adjustments to optimize the gateway by implementing technical security solutions to prohibit abuse and protect the value of our content
However, even if some content does leak - and let’s face it, anything on the net can leak as a cut n’ paste is only a few keystrokes away - at least an expectation of payment is being established. The message is that this content has a value attached to it.
Another way of approaching it could be to make content available in formats that are more difficult to crawl and replicate, such as streaming video, or Kindle books. Here’s a guide on how to self-publish on the Kindle.
Think about different ways to make it difficult for scrapers to extract all your value easily.
Paywalls Are Strategic
Paywalls are not just a sign-up form and a payment gateway. Paywalls are also a publishing strategy.
How much are you prepared to give away for free? How does giving away this content pay off?
A consultant may publish far and wide for free. The pay-off is more consulting gigs. The consultancy “content” sits behind a paywall in that you have to pay for that service. Not many SEO consultants give their detailed analysis away for free. The content we see in the public domain on SEO is a tiny fraction of the information held by the professionals in our niche, and that information may want to be free, but the owners, wisely, hold onto most of it, else they wouldn't eat.
Thanks for responding. Maybe by the end of the week? 1,200 words? We unfortunately can’t pay you for it, but we do reach 13 million readers a month. I understand if that’s not a workable arrangement for you, I just wanted to see if you were interested.
Thanks so much again for your time. A great piece!
I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children.....
Such arrangements suit the publisher, of course, but all the risk sits with the content creator. Sometimes, those deals can work if they lead to payment in some other form, but ensure you have a means to track the pay-off.
The upshot: paid content, it seems, is alive and well, but some media categories are doing a lot better than others.Taking just the use of paid content on tablets in Q4 2011, Nielsen found that in the U.S., a majority of tablet owners have already paid for downloaded music, books and movies, with 62 percent, 58 percent and 51 percent respectively saying they have already made such purchases
Could your content be better off pitched to a mobile audience? Made into an app? Published and promoted as a Kindle book?
The Hamster Wheel
This is not to say leaving content out in the open can’t pay the bills. Perhaps you don't feel a paywall is right for you, but you're growing tired of running faster just to stay in the same place.
Brian Lam used to be the editor of Gizmodo, Gawker media’s gadget blog. Gizmodo was run on a model familiar to search marketers where you first find a keyword stream then capture that stream by writing keyword-driven articles.
He likens this approach to a hamster on a wheel as he relentlessly churned out copy in order to drive more and more traffic.
It led to burn-out.
He loved the ocean, but his frantic digital existence meant his surfboard was gathering cobwebs. “I came to hate the Web, hated chasing the next post or rewriting other people’s posts just for the traffic,” he told me. “People shouldn’t live like robots.
The problem with ad-supported media models, such as Adsense, is that they depend on scale. With advertising rates decreasing year by year as the market gets more and more fractured, content production increases just to keep pace.
Lam went in the opposite direction.
His new gadget site only posts 12 times a month, but goes deep. The majority of his income comes from Amazon’s affiliate program. He achieves a 10-20% click-thru rate.
Mr. Lam’s revenue is low, about $50,000 a month, but it’s doubling every quarter, enough to pay his freelancers, invest in the site and keep him in surfboards. And now he actually has time to ride them. In that sense, Mr. Lam is living out that initial dream of the Web: working from home, working with friends, making something that saves others time and money.....The clean, simple interface, without the clutter of news, is a tiny business; it has fewer than 350,000 unique visitors a month at a time when ad buyers are not much interested in anything less than 20 million.But The Wirecutter is not really in the ad business. The vast majority of its revenue comes from fees paid by affiliates, mostly Amazon, for referrals to their sites. As advertising rates continue to tumble, affiliate fees could end up underwriting more and more media businesses“
Is running on a search-driven hamster wheel, churning out more and more keyword content the most worthwhile use of your time? Lam is making more money by feeding the beast less in terms of quantity and going deep on quality.
Loss Leader For The Search Engines
But, hang on. This is an SEO site, isn’t it? Aren’t we all about getting content into the search engines and ranking well?
SEO is still a great marketing channel, however this doesn’t mean to say everything we publish must appear in search engines. I hope this article prompts you to consider just how much you’re giving away compared to how much benefit you’re getting in return.
It all comes down to an ROI calculation. Does it cost me less to publish page X than I get in return? If you can publish pages cheaply enough, and if the traffic is worth enough, then great. If your publishing costs exceeds your return, then there are other models worth considering.
This article is mainly concerned with deep, researched, unique content that doesn’t have a trivial production cost attached to it. If the search engines don’t deliver enough value to make deep content creation worthwhile, then publishers must look beyond the “free” web model many have been using up until now in order to be sustainable.
Don’t let distributors suck out all your value so only they can grow fat. A paywall is more than a physical thing, it’s a strategy. If you publish a lot of valuable information that isn’t getting a reasonable return, then think about ways bundle that information into product form and ask yourself if you should keep it out of the search engines. Decide on your loss-leader content and create a sales funnel to ensure there is a payday at the end. The existence of content farms showed deep, free content often doesn’t pay. The way they made their content pay was to make it dirt cheap to produce and so useless that the advertising became the most relevant content on the page.
Content that relies heavily on search engine traffic is a high risk strategy. Some may recall a Mac site, called Cult Of Mac, that got hit by Panda. They were big enough, and connected enough, to have Google reinstate them, but the first comment in this thread tells it like it is:
It's great news that Google reinstated Cult of Mac although that will not happen to other smaller genuine blogs and websites..
It’s not enough to “publish quality content”. A lot of quality content gets hammered and tossed out of the search engines each day. And even if it stays listed, it may not make a return. There are no guarantees. Instead, build a brand and an audience. And then sell that audience something they can’t get for free.
Content may want to be free, but free doesn’t pay. For many publishers, the search engines aren’t giving enough back so be wary about how much you hand over to them.
Now is the best and exciting time to be in marketing. The new data-driven approaches and infrastructure to collect customer data are truly changing the marketing game, and there is incredible opportunity for those who act upon the new insights the data provides” - Mark Jeffrey, Kellog School Of Management
I think Jeffries is right - now is one of the best and exciting times to be in marketing!
It is now cheap and easy to measure marketing performance, so we are better able to spot and seize marketing opportunities. If we collect and analyze the right data, we will make better decisions, and increase the likelihood of success.
As Google makes their system harder to game using brute force tactics, the next generation of search marketing will be tightly integrated with traditional marketing metrics such as customer retention, churn, profitability, and customer lifetime value. If each visitor is going to be more expensive to acquire, then we need to make sure those visitors are worthwhile, and the more we engage visitors post-click, the more relevant our sites will appear to Google.
We’ll look at some important metrics to track and act upon.
Data-Driven Playing Field
There is another good reason why data-driven thinking should be something every search marketer should know about, even if some search marketers choose to take a different approach.
Google is a data-driven company.
If you want to figure out what Google is going to do next, then you need to think like a Googler.
Googlers think about - and act upon - data.
Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle
Regardless of whether you think acting on data or intuition is the right idea, if you can relate to the data-driven mindset and the company culture that results, you will better understand Google. Searcher satisfaction metrics are writ-large on Google’s radar and they will only get more refined and granular as time goes on.
Update Panda was all about user engagement issues. If a site does not engage users, it is less likely to rank well.
On the most basic level, Google could see how satisfied users were. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy users were all the same. The best sign of their happiness was the “long click”. this occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. That meant Google has successfully fulfilled the query. But unhappy users were unhappy in their own ways, most telling were the “short clicks” where a user followed a link and immediately returned to try again. “If people type something and then go and change their query, you could tell they aren’t happy,” says (Amit) Patel. “If they go to the next page of results, it’s a sign they’re not happy. You can use those signs that someone’s not happy with what we gave them to go back and study those cases and find places to improve search.
In terms of brand, the more well known you are, the more some of your traffic is going to be pre-qualified. Brand awareness can lower your bounce rate, which leads to better engagement signals.
Any site is going to have some arbitrary brand-related traffic and some generic search traffic. Where a site has good brand-related searches, those searches create positive engagement metrics which lift the whole of the site. The following chart is conceptual, but it drives the point home. As more branded traffic gets folded into the mix, aggregate engagement metrics improve.
If your site and business metrics look good in terms of visitor satisfaction - i.e. people are buying what you offer and/or reading what you have to say, and recommending you to their friends - it’s highly likely your relevancy signals will look positive to Google, too. People aren’t just arriving and clicking back. They are engaging, spending time, talking about you, and returning.
Repeat visits to your site, especially from logged-in Google users with credit cards on file, are yet another signal Google can look at to see that people like, demand and value what you offer.
Post-Panda, SEO is about the behavior of visitors post-click. In order to optimize for visitor satisfaction, we need to measure their behavior post-click and adjust our offering. A model that I've found works well in a post-Panda environment is a data-driven approach, often used in PPC. Yes, we still have to do link building and publish relevant pages, but we also have to focus on the behavior of users once they arrive. We collect and analyze behavior data and feed it back into our publication strategy to ensure we're giving visitors exactly what they want.
What Is Data Driven Marketing?
Data driven marketing is, as the name suggests, the collection and analysis of data to provide insights into marketing strategies.
It’s a way to measure how relevant we are to the visitor, as the more relevant we are, the more positive our engagement metrics will be. A site can constantly be adapted, based on the behavior of previous visitors, in order to be made more even more relevant.
The process involves three phases. Setting up a framework to measure and analyze visitor behaviour, testing assumptions using visitor data, then optimizing content, channels and offers to maximize return. This process is used a lot in PPC.
Pre-web, this type of data used to be expensive to collect and analyse. Large companies engaged market researchers to run surveys, focus groups, and go out on the street to gather data.
These days, collecting input from consumers and adapting campaigns is as easy as firing up analytics and creating a process to observe behaviour and modify our approach based on the results. High-value data analysis and marketing can be done on small budgets.
Yet many companies still don’t do it.
And many of those that do aren’t measuring the right data. By capturing and analysing the right data, we put ourselves at a considerable advantage to most of our competitors.
In his book Data Driven Marketing, Jeffrey notes that the lower performing companies in the Fortune 500 were spending 4% less than the average on marketing, and the high performers were investing 20% more than average. Low performers focused on demand generation - sales, coupons, events - whereas high performers spend a lot more on brand and marketing infrastructure. Infrastructure includes the processes and software tools needed to capture and analyse marketing data.
So the more successful companies are spending more on tools and process than lower performing companies.
When it comes to the small/medium sized businesses, we have most of the tools we need readily available. Capturing and analyzing the right data is really about process and asking the right questions.
What Are The Right Questions?
We need a set of metrics that help us measure and optimize for visitor satisfaction.
Jeffrey identifies 15 data-analysis areas for marketers. Some of these metrics relate directly to search marketing, and some do not. However, it’s good to at least be aware of them as these are the metrics traditional marketing managers use, so might serve as inspiration get us thinking about where the cross-overs into search marketing lay. I recommend reading his book to anyone who wants a crash course in data-driven marketing and to better understand where how marketing managers think.
Net Present Value
Internal Rate Of Return
Customer Lifetime Value
Cost Per Click
Transaction Conversion Rate
Return On Ad Dollars Spent
Word Of Mouth (Social Media Reach)
I’ll re-define this list and focus on a few metrics we could realistically use that help us optimize sites and offers in terms of visitor engagement and satisfaction. As a bonus, we’ll likely create the right relevancy signature Google is looking for which will help us rank well. Most of these metrics come directly from PPC.
First, we need a.....dashboard! Obviously, a dashboard is a place where you can see how you’re progressing, at a glance, measured over time. There are plenty of third party offerings, or you can roll-your-own, but the important thing is to have one and use it. You need a means to measure where you are, and where you’re going in terms of visitor engagement.
1. Traffic Vs Leads
Traffic is a good metric for display and brand purposes. If a site is making money based on how many people see the site, then they will be tracking traffic.
For everyone else, combining the two can provide valuable insights. If traffic has increased, but the site is generating the same number of leads - or whatever your desired engagement action may be, but I'll use the term "leads" to mean any desired action - then is that traffic worthwhile? Track how many leads are closed and this will tell you if the traffic is valuable. If the traffic is high, but engagement is low, then visitors are likely clicking back, and this is not a signal Google deems favorable.
This data is also the basis for adjusting and testing the offer and copy. Does engagement increase or decrease after you’ve adjusted the copy and/or the offer?
2. Search Channel Vs Other Channels
Does search traffic result in more leads than, say, social media traffic? Does it result in more leads vs any other channel? If so, then there is justification to increase spending on search marketing vs other channels.
Separate marketing channels out so you can compare and contrast.
3. Channel Growth
Is the SEM channel growing, staying the same, or declining vs other channels?
Set targets and incremental milestones. Create a process to adjust copy and offers and measure the results. The more conversions to desired action, the better your relevancy signal is likely to be, and the more you’ll be rewarded.
You can get quite granular with this metric. If certain pages are generating more leads than others as the direct result of keyword clicks, then you know which keyword areas to grow and exploit in order to grow the performance of the channel as a whole. It can be difficult to isolate if visitors skip from page to page, but it can give you a good idea which entry pages and keywords kick it all off.
4. Paid Vs Organic
If a search campaign is running both PPC and SEO, then split these two sources out. Perhaps SEO produces more leads. In which case, this will justify creating more blog posts, articles, link strategies, and so on.
If PPC produces more leads, then the money may be better spent on PPC traffic, optimizing offers and landing pages, and running A/B tests. Of course, the information gleaned here can be fed into your organic strategies. If the content works well in PPC, it is likely to work well in SEO, at least in terms of engagement.
5. Call To Action
How do you know if a call to action is working? Could the call to action be worded differently? Which version of the call to action works best? Which position does it work best? Does the color of the link make a difference?
This type of testing is common in PPC, but less so in SEO. If SEO pages are optimized in this manner, then we increase the level of engagement and reduce the click-back.
6. Returning Visitor
If all your visitors are new and never return, then your broader relevance signals aren’t likely to be great.
This doesn’t mean all sites must have a high number of return visitors in order to deemed relevant - one-off sales sites would be unlikely to have return visitors, yet a blog would - however, if your site is in a class of sites where every other site listed is receiving return visits, then your site is likely to suffer by comparison.
Measure the number of return visitors vs new visitors. Think about ways you can keep visitors coming back, especially if you suspect that your competitors have high return visitor rates.
7. Cost Per Click/Transaction Conversion Rate/Return On Ad Dollars Spent
PPC marketers are familiar with these metrics. We pay per click (CPC) and hope the visitor converts to desired action. We get a better idea of the effectiveness of keyword marketing when we combine this metric with transaction conversion rate (TCR) and return on ad dollars spent (ROA). TCR = transaction conversion rate; the percentage of customers who purchase after clicking through to your website. ROA = return on ad dollars spent.
These are good metrics for SEOs to get their heads around, too, especially when justifying SEO spends relative to other channels. For cost per click, use the going rate on Adwords and assign it to the organic keyword if you want to demonstrate value. If you're getting visitors in at a lot lower price per click the SEO channel looks great. The cost-per-click in SEO is also the total cost of the SEO campaign divided by clicks over time.
8. Bounce Rate
Widely speculated to be an important metric post-Panda. Obviously, we want to get this rate down, Panda or not.
If you’re seeing good rankings but high bounce rates for pages it’s because the page content isn’t relevant enough. It might be relevant in terms of content as far as the algorithm sees it, but not relevant in terms of visitor intent. Such a page may drift down the rankings over time as a result, and it certainly doesn’t do other areas of your business any good
9. Word Of Mouth (Social Media Reach/Brand)
Are other people talking about you? Do they repeat your brand name? Do they do so often? If you can convince enough people to search for you based on your name, then you’ll “own” that word. Google must return your site, else they’ll be seen as lacking.
If search marketers can demonstrate they add value to the bottom line, then they are much more likely to be retained and have budget increased. This isn't directly related to Panda optimization, other than in the broad sense that the more profitable the business, the more likely they are keeping visitors satisfied.
Profit = revenue - cost. Does the search marketing campaign bring in more revenue that it costs to run? How will you measure and demonstrate this? Is the search marketing campaign focused on the most profitable products, or the least? Do you know which products and services are the most profitable to the business? What value does your client place on a visitor?
There is no one way of tracking this. It’s a case of being aware of the metric, then devising techniques to track it and add it to the dashboard.
11. Customer Lifetime Value
Some customers are more important than others. Some customers convert, buy the least profitable service or product, and we never hear from them again. Some buy the most profitable service or product, and return again and again.
Is the search campaign delivering more of the former, or the latter? Calculating this value can be difficult, and relies on internal systems within the company that the search marketer may not have access to, but if the company already has this information, then it can help validate the cost of search marketing campaigns and to focus campaigns on the keyword areas which offer the most return.
Some of these metrics don't specifically relate to ranking, they're about marketing value, but perhaps an illustration of how some of the traditional marketing metrics and those of search marketers are starting to overlap. The metrics I've outlined are just some of the many metrics we could use and I'd be interested to hear what other metrics you're using, and how you're using them.
Optimizing For Visitor Experience
If you test these metrics, then analyse and optimize your content and offers based on your findings, not only will this help the bottom line, but your signature on Google, in terms of visitor relevance, is likely to look positive because of what the visitor does post-click.
When we get this right, people are engaging. They are clicking on the link, they’re staying rather than clicking back, they’re clicking on a link on the page, they’re reading other pages, they’re interacting with our forms, they’re book-marking pages or telling others about our sites on social media. These are all engagement signals, and increased engagement tends to indicate greater relevance.
This is diving deeper than a traditional SEO-led marketing approach, which until quite recently worked, even if you only operated in the search channel and put SEO at the top of the funnel. It’s not just about the new user and the first visit, it’s also about the returning visitor and their level of engagement over time. The search visitor has a value way beyond that first click and browse.
Data-driven content and offer optimization is where SEO is going.