There is an interview on Open Forum in which Seth Godin interviews Richard Branson. The question is: Why is small business is better than big business?
Branson explains how he structures Virgin so that it is a series of small companies. People know each other by first name. People need to know each others strengths and weakness, and collaborate, and be responsible for the work they do. Branson believes this open small company results in a better service to clients.
In the worst economy we've seen in decades, Passlogix, a privately owned 100-person software development company, just received over a million dollars in prepaid commitments for the next three to five years of service....Now, how do you explain that? The bigger companies aren't getting similar deals.....I think it's a trend. And understanding it might just be the difference between failing and thriving in this economy.
The difference, the article goes on to suggest, is the trust factor.
People need to be able to trust companies to deliver. And in the current climate, where big companies are just as likely to go to the wall as small ones, big companies no longer have the advantage of being trusted to deliver by virtue of their size.
Small companies can build trust quickly in ways that big companies cannot.
How To Establish Trust
SEOs and marketers spend a lot of time trying to get traffic to sites. This is a difficult task, but it's a task that only solves half the problem.
The problem is how do you get traffic to you site and get it to do what you want.
If my traffic dropped by 50% tomorrow, I couldn't care less, so long as conversions stayed the same or increased. Traffic, like ranking, is is not a good metric of success, unless you're selling advertising by the page view, and even then it can be seriously misleading. i.e. how many people acted on the ads?
What makes people engage? Underlying all transactions, is that the buyer trusts the seller to deliver.
In order to help establish trust, consider these factors, especially if you're operating in an area where you're looking to sell an ongoing relationship:
Familiarity & Personality
It's never been easier to build a personal, trusted brand. Twitter, social networks, e-mail lists, blogs and other personal communication channels all make it easy for people to see how you think and act before they engage with you.
If you're seen often enough, in the right places, doing good things, people will come to you, because the known feels safe. The unknown is risky.
This is why PR and networking are critical. They help establish familiarity, which leads to trust, especially if the same person customers see writing articles/Twittering/networking is the same person who answers the phone.
Let customers to know you before you know them.
Do you have markers on your site that show you have earned a good reputation? Credible media mentions? Recommendations from satisfied customers? Proof you've got customers?
Again, a quick search is likely to reveal the state of your reputation.
With companies going to the wall left right and center, stability is a major factor for any long term engagement.
Ever worked with a colleague who is inconsistent and unpredictable? Is that trustworthy? Consistency and predictability build trust.
Respond to emails and inquiries promptly. Say what you'll do, do it, and then tell people you've done it. If you've been operating for a while, make a point of saying it - anything that screams "consistency and predictability".
Do you trust that web site with (c) 2004 at the bottom? Is it still going? Google is chock full of outdated search results from companies, that, on face value, show no sign of life. That's not a good look in the current economic climate.
Staying up to date and engaged is important, especially if the real time web becomes more established, which I strongly suspect it will. Customers will expect companies to communicate using the same method and channels they do, and these channels increasingly favor the immediate and frequent over the slow and infrequent.
Big companies have long indulged in being secretive, unapproachable and oblique. It isn't very appealing.
Why on earth would a small company follow this model? Plenty of them do, presumably to create the illusion they're just like a big company. But big no longer means better like it used to.
Open people and companies build trust. If a company is transparent in it's operations, people are more likely to trust them. Show people who you are, what you're about, and what problems you can solve for them. It's often a good idea to say if you can't solve someone's problem, you'll tell them, and recommend to them someone who can. By doing so, you'll even build trust with non-customers, and you never know who they'll talk to. Every engagement is an opportunity.
There is nothing worse, from a trust point of view, in a company saying they'll do something, and then not do it.
Big companies often fall into this trap because their sales force are separated from their operations divisions, and the sales people are working on commission. Sales people can promise the world in order to get the signature, knowing they're not the ones who have to deliver. That's some other faceless divisions problem.
Small companies seldom have this problem, a problem Branson also tries to counter by organizing small.
Got any ideas on how to build trust? How have you built trust with your customers?
In short, the article is about how the internet appears to be going through its next big shift. It is moving towards becoming a stream of immediate information. The web is being organized by "nowness"
This real-time stream has been building for a while. It began with RSS, but is now so much stronger and swifter, encompassing not just periodic news and musings but constant communication, status updates, instantly shared thoughts, photos, and videos.
I thought the article gives us a compelling way to think about this shift:
First and foremost what emerges out of this is a new metaphor — think streams vs. pages. In the initial design of the web reading and writing (editing) were given equal consideration - yet for fifteen years the primary metaphor of the web has been pages and reading. The metaphors we used to circumscribe this possibility set were mostly drawn from books and architecture (pages, browser, sites etc.). Most of these metaphors were static and one way. The steam metaphor is fundamentally different. It’s dynamic, it doesn’t live very well within a page and still very much evolving. A stream. A real time, flowing, dynamic stream of information — that we as users and participants can dip in and out of and whether we participate in them or simply observe we are a part of this flow.
But isn't this just social media marketing? We've known about that for a long time now. Yes. But the concept of "nowness" and immediacy give us a great way to make sense of it, and a better understanding of how to make it work for us.
One of the criticisms we often hear about search engines is that a lot of the information is dated. Google has tried to address this problem by focusing on sources such as Wikipedia, that have a community of updaters, or pointing you towards news content, if your search is time dependent, or allowing you to sort by date. Search is also rather anonymous, as opposed to personal.
The appeal of Facebook/Twitter is that they provide an immediacy of information. There is a constant flow, updated often. They also provide this information in the context of a trusted filter i.e. your friend network. That's a big shift in how information will be accessed, especially as more and more people come to view the web from this perspective.
If the web is indeed a place, it is starting to look less like a library, and more like a river.
What Does This All Mean For The SEO?
It means SEOs will need to think more about what traffic is, where it comes from, and how to hook it.
Look at where people are spending their time. Increasingly, it isn't on web pages or sites. It's within a trusted channel that provides a flow of information. So a site owner needs to think about how to direct these streams towards a site, and make sure people hang around long enough to buy what the site owner is selling before they move on.
Obviously, search engines aren't going to disappear. Nor are people going to stop publishing web pages. Nor are they going to stop visiting web pages. But what are the characteristics of social media activity, and how does it differ from search visitor activity?
I think the main characteristics of this channel are immediacy, the fleeting visit, trust, relevancy, and remarkable-ness.
Encourage user registration on your site to help lock people in
Offer time-limited membership deals
Offer forums, tools, multiple content formats, and other interactive elements that mimic the appealing aspects of social media
Be unique, memorable and remarkable so people talk about you to their friends
The Twitter/Facebook/Social Media streams are like the rest of the web in that most of it is junk. So how do people filter the noise and focus on the good bits? Trust is one aspect.
Do people say "Hey, look at this great secured loans site?". They don't. We'll, not unless they're pimping for said secured loans site. The stream is not going to favor the mee-too approach, either. It's going to favor the remarkable approach. Do people on social media sites point out the mundane?
So re-read Seth Godin, and think about "being remarkable", and how to apply it to your strategy.
Incidentally, when asked about Twitter today, Larry Page had this to say:
I have always thought we needed to index the web every second to allow real time search. At first, my team laughed and did not believe me. With Twitter, now they know they have to do it. Not everybody needs sub-second indexing but people are getting pretty excited about realtime
Do you know what attracts your readers? What headlines they respond to most? Do they respond to pictures? Do they know what your offer is?
No doubt we all agree that testing is a good thing to do. We can see clearly if our ideas are working or not. But a lot of testing is, quite frankly, tedious.
Measuring user behavior patterns and visitor paths is, in most cases, worthwhile, but there is always a trade-off in terms of the time it takes to setup and run such testing verses the reward for doing so.
Here are a few cheap and cheerful testing ideas that don't take a lot of time, but can improve your site performance significantly.
1. Write Your Copy, Then Leave It Alone For A Day
One of the best ways to test the effectiveness of your copy is to simply leave it until tomorrow before you hit publish.
It can be very hard to read your own copy objectively, especially as you're writing it. It is often laced with emotion, and the impulsive desire to just finish the damn thing and get it out there.
By leaving it until the next day before you hit publish, you force yourself to re-read your copy in a more objective light. You allow yourself a mental separation between your writer and editor brain function.
When editing, replace long words with short words. Break up long sentences into short ones. Minimize. Eliminate duplication. All copy benefits from rewriting.
Leaving copy aside for a day is the cheapest way to get the objective help of an "editor", without actually having to hire one.
2. Get Someone Else To Read Your Page Aloud
It's a good idea to read your copy out loud. It helps you spot weaknesses more easily.
It's an even better idea to get someone else to read it aloud.
You'll experience your copy how other people will hear it in their heads. Does it get your message across when it is read by someone who doesn't know the point you are eventually going to make? Does it sound like they want to read what is coming next, or do they sound confused or bored? Are the most important points emphasized? Is it obvious what the desired action is?
It can be difficult to spot these factors when reading copy in your head, but blindingly obvious when someone else reads it back to you.
3. Basic Split Run Test Using Adwords
Even if you're focusing on SEO, Adwords is a great way to test the effectiveness of your your chosen keyword terms and site copy.
Once you have a keyword list for SEO, run a short adwords campaign against those keywords. Test the titles and descriptions you plan to use. Test the performance of your landing pages by swapping out one page for another on different days. You can then feed this information through to your SEO campaign. Run with the winners, and cut the losers.
Keep in mind the Adwords won't perform just like a SERP listing, because a lot of people ignore advertising. However, this method is likely to give you a rough idea on what people who search on your chosen keywords are really interested in. Chances are if it works in Adwords, it will work even better in the main SERPs.
Quite often, the keywords you imagine are the most important don't work so well in practice. Or perhaps the title tag you were planning on using might not be enticing enough. For a small sum, you can test keyword effectiveness before embarking on the long and involved process of SEO, link building and ranking, which you'll have to live with for years.
4. Are You Selling The Solution To The Problem
Say you want to build a mailing list by giving away a free e-book.
These days, that's a boring offer.
Unfairly, e-books have a bad reputation because they are often perceived as low value and are frequently associated with scams. "Free" on the internet is essentially meaningless, given that most things on the internet are free.
Instead, sell the solution. i.e "Do you want to know how to find the top five investment funds in any market? Do you want to find the funds that have consistently returned over 10% p/a for the last ten years? Sign up for our free e-book download that answers these questions, and more"
Much more enticing than "free e-book give-away". The form (e-book) is not the important bit, the benefit (finding the right investment funds) is the important bit.
The internet has a lot in common with direct marketing. Proven and tested direct marketing methods dictate we should "sell the sizzle", wherever appropriate. The idea is that people don't buy products and services, they buy the benefits of those products and services. They ask "what's in it for them?"
Does your copy always move towards answering this question? Read your copy aloud. If it doesn't, then rewrite until it does.
5. Does The Picture Sync With The Message?
Pictures are powerful attention grabbers.
But do you have the right image? The right image is the image that helps you sell. Grabbing attention doesn't necessarily translate into sales. Flickr is full of attention grabbing images that will never sell themselves, or anything else.
In terms of doing business, a picture, like words, should relate to the product or service. A picture's function is to increase sales. If it doesn't, it shouldn't be there.
The most obvious relationship is direct i.e a picture of the product or service. Modern advertising tends to focus on indirect relationships, such as implied association with people who use the product. i.e. a group of cool skater kids hanging out may advertise Vans footwear, even if you don't actually see the shoes in shot. The benefit for the audience is to become part of this cool tribe. More indirect methods tend to be used in brand building advertising.
The closer you are to direct marketing, the more direct the imagery tends to be. If you want to sell an Apple iPod Touch, you show a big picture of one. Basic stuff, right? But it's surprising how many sites use vague imagery that might look cool, but gives the viewer no idea what the site is about, or doesn't lead them to identify with your product or service.
Don't ask "Is this picture worth a thousand words? ", ask "Does this picture tell the customer a thousand words about my product or service?"
Got any more cheap and cheerful testing methods? Add them to the comments.
Is it a cultural thing? For example, does hard sell work in some cultures, but not others?
Personally, when I experience the hard-sell, I immediately become suspicious that the product is worthless. After all, shouldn't the product or service, if useful, pretty much sell itself?
Having said that, I have, on occasion, bought from people using the hard sell. Curiosity sometimes gets the better of us all :)
The fact that aggressive sales strategies are used so often tends to indicate such approaches do work. Let's take a look at some of these tactics, and if you can think of more examples, please add them in the comments. Also, if you've had success using such tactics yourself, please share your experiences.
The Time Sensitive Offer
A time sensitive offer, as the name suggests, is an offer that has a specific time limit.
Typically, the more time people have to think about something, especially impulse buyers, the less likely they are to take action. So the time sensitive offer will always create a sense of urgency - combined with jeopardy. People feel they might miss out if they don't act immediately. Like many hard sell tactics, it is based on fear. In this case - the fear of missing out.
Limited places available: "Only ten places left!"
Limited stock available: "STOCK CLEARANCE!! WE ONLY HAVE A FEW OF THESE LEFT!! GET IN QUICK BEFORE THEY SELL OUT!"
Deadlines: "This offer will end at midnight, tonight! After then, we close the program" (Of course, they re-open it again at regular intervals)
The hype level of the hard sell is usually off the scale compared to most legitimate business offers.
I recall an offer last year where the hype level for a vaguely SEO-related service was getting quite ridiculous. Like many other people, I was getting bombarded with emails at every step of the sales process.
They were going to launch in a few weeks. They were just about to launch. They launched. They had launched, but there was still time to sign up!
The aim is to create an event.
The advertiser also needs to make some fairly outrageous claims. Trouble is, when everyone is making outrageous claims, then s/he needs to make even bigger ones in order to get noticed.
It sometimes helps if you print a lot of zeros on an over-sized check to really ram the point home.
How do you avoid getting sucked in?
Hard work was intoxicating.
But sitting in the ‘counting house’ counting money was frankly even more appealing. I frankly don’t know how much money and time I spent before I got wise. Or should I say wiser.
The moment of wisdom came when I started recognising the red flags.
I started avoiding anything ‘instant.’
I started avoiding anything that offered ‘tsunamis of customers’
I started avoiding anything that had fancy cars, surfboards, planes, jets, boats.
I started avoid anything with graphics of cheque books and bank balances.
Secret Or Unfair Advantage
Everyone loves to know something the next guy does not. Or gain an advantage. Anything that creates a shortcut to effort. And creating an air of mystery or invitation to a select club is very enticing.
Of course, if the secret or unfair advantage was significant, you've really got to wonder why anyone would sell it for $89.95 to faceless unknowns.
Social Proof Of Value
Social proof involves making the assumption that other people are better informed that you. People like to go where other people have gone, as it feels less risky that way, unless they all happen to be buying tickets for the Titanic, of course.
Social proof takes the form of case studies, personal recommendations, and, as often happens on the internet, shilling. Ever tried to look for a review of a product that has been sold hard? Chances are the only reviews of the new $2,000 course that ***will change the world forever*** you'll find are from affiliates.
Example (combined with time sensitive offer): Server Issue: "Our server crashed (yeah, right) due to the number of responses. We're so sorry to all those who missed out! So we've extended the offer for one more day!"
Some merchants warm up an email list by giving away prizes in exchange for testimonials as you get closer to the launch date. They even let you know that the more outlandish the testimonial is the greater the chance of being featured and winning a prize. Such false endorsements are meant to fool the rest of the list into thinking they are missing out on a once in a lifetime opportunity. And anyone who contacts them during the sales pitch gets a special link ***only for them*** to place their order the night before the general public.
Any Idiot Can do it, Fast, Easy, & Nearly Automatically
A friend recently got this via email, which captures the essence of the 'anyone can do it' pitch.
We gave you solid PROOF. Proof of how 37 people walked in our office on a Monday morning in May with:
NO technical experience
And they ALL walked out Friday at 4 p.m. with their very own Internet business. Amazing, isn't it?
Now, listen to this very carefully:
If you are remotely interested in attracting more wealth into your life at a faster speed, our elite Internet marketing team can transform your life forever. It sounds clichéd, but it's true.
In some cases during the sales process you will see testimonials from teenagers, senior citizens, AND people with severe disabilities. They are showcased and exploited to remind you that if they can do it then surely you can too.
My friend also had a call with one such group about their 'mentorship program' where it was a tiered list of interviews that were made to look like qualification interviews, but were actually more like boiler room sales sessions, where certain people's times were limited and they just happened to open up right now if you have $5,000 of space on your credit card.
One group asked Aaron banal SEO questions via email one month, and was then selling a how to SEO course less than a month later. They went from completely ignorant to masters in record time. So long as they sell to desperate, inexperienced, and/or stupid people it is a strategy that works. For that target market they only need to be confident and know slightly more than your prospective customer to pry a few dollars out of their wallet.
Cross selling involves selling an additional product or service to an existing customer.
This is not just a method used to hard sell, it's a highly efficient way to market. It is cheapest to market to those whom you already have built up a relationship.
Intimacy & Relationship Building
Guerrilla Marketing is an approach to marketing that has become very popular on the internet, mostly to get over the barrier of anonymity.
One aspect central to Guerrilla marketing is the importance of building up a personal relationship, so the sales pitch will often be personality driven. It involves telling personal stories about familiar situations and problems that have been overcome. It is the polar opposite of the anonymous, depersonalized copy of the sales brochure.
Some "business opportunity" merchants create fake "application forms" which accept everyone with a credit card and a pulse.
Hard Selling is Not All Bad
There are many potential bad customers who take take take and have no intent of doing any real work. Get rich quick ponzi schemers offer a more compelling offer to them than you or I ever would, and so they filter them out of the marketplace *
I was getting better clients thanks to the get-rich-quick merchants.
They were weeding out the people who simply wanted it easy. They were weeding out those who got impatient because they tried something for 10 minutes and weren't getting results.
They were weeding out all those for whom hard work is like a disease.
* If your price-point is one of the lowest in your market and you do not charge recurring fees and the get rich quick folks enter your market then you will likely need to increase your prices and/or change your business model to filter out that bottom tier of customer and restore your faith in humanity. Even having 1 in 10 customer interactions be unpleasant can become unbearable.
Many hard sell techniques cross over into softer-sell conventional marketing and sales. We recently added a pop up to this site offering a free SEO course via email, and it did increase our conversion rates. The proof of any marketing technique can be found in the bottom line: did it make more money than other techniques?
I'd be interested to hear your experiences. Do you use these techniques? Have you bought from people using these techniques?
One of my biggest business flaws was perhaps starting off with a fairly low self-esteem. Because of that, I catered toward people who were whiny, wanted free stuff, and never had any intent of buying anything. Being naive, and wanting to be liked too much, I catered to such worthless people, and probably cut my income short over the years by millions of dollars. Over the course of the last year I decided that I was going to change directions on that front, and I have never had a problem with being blunt.
Entitlement: People do Not Respect Free
A couple days ago I got this gem.
The data provided by this tool makes it useless. I had over 10k DMOZ entries, over 35k delicious bookmarks, over 300k .edu bookmarks, etc. if this was true, Google would ban me and my first three children plus 100 yrs, and i would be slapped so hard, my cousins would feel it. why provide this tool when it gives insanely data that makes it useless?
I told the person how to update the extension, and yet they were too stupid to read, and kept spamming up my site with progressively nastier comments until I banned them. The software they were complaining about getting for free is better than lots of stuff that sells for $100 or more, but free means dealing with idiots from time to time.
Twitter is soooo Cool
The latest style of cool is Twitter. Where you can look hip by complaining about something being garbage, even if it is something you have personally gained value from. I get blowback every week or 2 on Twitter about someone who feels embarassed to Tweet a link to our great content because this site has a pop up on it.
But if someone really believes in this site (and what we offer) then they wouldn't feel embarassed about an advertisement offering a free introductory course to SEO. If they respected our opinion they would be recommending our work.
The moment of clarity which inspired this post was this tweet
It was quickly countered with
But those people are not non-customers who could be converted to customers. Why? If they are turned off by giving away free information and would rather bitch about it on Twitter than click the "don't show again" link then they were never going to become a customer, and frankly I would not want them as a customer.
If they are too lazy to click the "don't show again" link then they are too lazy to participate in the site or business in a more meaningful way.
The Sales Process
As Peter highlighted, the people who are non-customers that can be converted to customers are people who are typically concerned that the topic is too complex or confusing. And those ***are*** the type of people who would subscribe to our autoresponder, get a lot of value for free, and then decide to...gasp...become paying customers.
Sales and marketing is a sequential process. Which means that everything that happens between the introduction and the sale is 100% important. Anything that interrupts this process can be fatal to your business.
Sales and marketing are the most hazardous parts of a business to outsource. Things like payroll and bookkeeping and manufacturing, easy to outsource. Your voice and your identity, almost impossible.
Sales and marketing is worthy of your passion, devotion and dedication. It is typically the highest leverage activity in any business. And despite the fact that many "academic types" sneer at it, it's still true: Nothing happens until somebody sells something.
You MUST master two things: ONE way of getting traffic, and ONE way of converting it. If you achieve mastery, it will be perfectly OK to be merely "competent" at the other things and your business will still flourish.
The autoresponder (and the pop up that promotes it) are part of that sequential sales process. Remove them and something like 50% of the non-customers that can be converted to customers never convert. It's not worth throwing away half your sales because some whiner on Twitter bitches about free not being good enough for their tastes, and they are too lazy to click the "don't show" link.
We have put in over 1000 hours of work on the project. Is it too much to ask you to leave a useful comment? I am also tired of marketing gurus that sell products that direct their users to our lists. They have made lots of money and they claim to support leaving useful comments. However, the response from these visitors. Is about only about .3%. Yes, that less than 1%. I will rejoice when these niche products never send anymore traffic here. I regret that our efforts caused others blogs to switch back to No Follow. I truly regret what this good idea became.
And then you feel embarassed for all the comment spammers that comment spam nofollowed links (and even links that are not seen by Google). Check out Google's cache of this Work.com page and then look at how many SEOs there are who are too stupid or too lazy to view the source code or Google cache before comment spamming a page about SEO, and looking like an embarassement in front of their peers.
Catering primarily to the crowd with a $0 budget is rarely a business building strategy for a media business built on selling. Yes the people who waste hours daily chatting on social sites all day can help shift the perception of your product, but those same people who are out there bad mouthing your site were not going to give you very good word-of-mouth-marketing...it certainly would not lead to many sales. To that class of people everything is overpriced (except whatever they sell).
Focusing on Real Customers
Plenty of people enjoy our site, and profit from our advice. We have many subscribers who have been with us ever since we started our business model...hundreds that have been subscribers for over a year. Their opinions matter, but the feedback from the free whiners is worth less than nothing. Why? If I listened to them I would promote my site less aggressively and less effectively, while ignoring the fact that the complaining "me first" free-loaders are the type of people who complain about carpet stains while they take a shit in my virtual livingroom.
That same email course is being recommended by people across the web. In the forums Anita Campbell told me she was talking to a friend who out of the blue mentioned our autoresponder and that they thought it was the best autoresponder sequence they ever subscribed to. And Deseriee Sanchez, the single kind Twitter user, liked it as well ;)
Not that all Twitter users are bad...just the ones that whine about a marketing site using effective, honest, and wholesome marketing techniques.
That same pop up that is offensive to the non-customer who is too cheap to ever be a customer is getting free media exposure and word of mouth marketing by people who ***are*** using the advice to build their businesses. Just last week I got this via email:
Hi Aaron. I am a reporter at the New York Daily News. I plan to mention seobook.com in an article running on Monday re SEO for small business owners.
A source I spoke to recommended seobook.com as a good resource for business owners who might want to do seo themselves and are on a limited budget. I wanted to confirm that you offer a free email course. Is that correct?
Chasing Popularity Distracts You from Profit
Worse yet, while I spent years catering to this guy...
DON'T BUY ANYTHING, just visit his site and bitch about all the years of hard work he has done and the millions of dollars worth of information and software he shares for free.
...others were re-wrapping my work in hype and aggressive marketing, outselling me on my own work 5:1 and 10:1 because they sold that same info in a way that was obvious. Aggressive hyped up launch with super-basic how to videos. Clean formatting, limited information, rarely updated, and a linear prescriptive layout.
Focusing on Profit
Some of those guys (who became multi-millionaires from being good at sales and repackaging) lifted lines out of my ebook and went so far as asking for free updates to my ebook to help base their next competing product off of.
I have seen the other side of many of the $1,997 guru online membership websites. Sometimes they don't protect their member areas, and then when they launch they link to our site. So that tool the guy was whining about in my comment section is the same one other internet marketers tell you to go use after you give them a couple thousand dollars.
Many of those guys offer 0 interaction when you buy their stuff, and they plan for a high refund rate...hoping that the initial price point and hyped launch (built off of affiliate marketing) are still enough to make it worthwhile. Based on their clickthroughs to this site, some of these guys make a decent number of sales.
We don't do bad, but we offer a more interactive learning environment at a compelling price-point and we shouldn't cede customers to other sites reselling access to free parts of our site so we can cater to penny-less Twitter users - who are unhappy getting for free what others gladly pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for. If that makes me less popular I guess that is the way it is going to be.
I'm reading a book called "In Search Of The Obvious". It makes many references to another book, written in 1916, called "Obvious Adams". The book outlines the simple truth of marketing, which is that the best marketing solutions should be evident. They should be obvious. They should be simple.
But isn't that the deep, distant past? This is the internet age. Everything is different now. We're living in a complicated age, surely!
It's not different now because while circumstances change, the human condition remains the same. And those who don't learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat it. Looking at what happened in Vietnam will tell you what will happen in Iraq. There is plenty of advice that stands the test of time, and I think this truth is a great one.
A search for any marketing strategy should be a search for the obvious.
Five Tests Of Obviousness
The book outlines five tests to see if an idea, a strategy, or a solution is obvious.
The Problem, When Solved, Will Be Simple
If an idea is clever, ingenious, or complicated, it's not obvious.
History is full of of simple solutions to complex problems. A search engine, although complex in execution, is a simple solution to a complex problem. You type a topic you're interested in, and the search engine shows you where to find information on that topic. E-mail lets you send messages to other people instantly. A mobile phone lets you call people from anywhere.
Anyone can understand these solutions.
Does It Fit With Human Nature
Will it be accepted by a wide range of people when you tell it to them?
Will your mother understand it? Will you friends? Will the guy behind the counter at the shop? Do you feel comfortable explaining your idea to these people? These people are a cross section of human nature. They will be indicative of the wider community in which your idea will exist.
Because these people won't understand industry conventions and technical jargon, in order to explain it, you'd need to strip your idea down to the basic features and benefits. Does it still work?
Put It On Paper
Write your idea down on paper.
Write it as if you were explaining it to a child. Can you do so in three sentences? When you find the right words to describe your idea, it will sound simple. If it sounds complicated, it's probably not a great idea.
Does It Explode In People's Minds
Do people say "now why didn't we think of that before"?
You've probably had that experience yourself. It's the head-slapping moment. From that moment on, the matter appears settled.
No further talk seems necessary.
Is The Time Right?
Many ideas and plans are obvious, but occur at the wrong time. Ask yourself if the time for this idea has passed? Or is it some way off in the future?
For example, given the existence of Twitter, would you start a blog that pointed out interesting things on the internet? The time for a blog pointing out interesting things on the internet has clearly passed.
Does this all sound too simple for the complicated internet?
A lot of people start with simple ideas and deliberately make them complex. By making ideas complex, they make themselves sound clever. They use complicated charts and diagrams. They use big sounding, empty phrases. Some people certainly buy into that approach. By buying into it, it makes them appear clever, too.
But is that what people really want?
Do you buy goods and services that confuse you?
Isn't the real aim to be self-evident?
Apply These Ideas To The SEO Pitch
So why is SEO so difficult to get across to people? Why aren't there hordes of people knocking down your door to sign up? Do people's eyes glaze over when you tell them what you do?
I think that happens because the language is wrong. SEO hasn't been boiled down to the simple idea.
I recall watching a video a few years back where Jill Whalen addressed a marketing conference of non-SEOs. She was talking about SEO, but I'm not sure the audience were responding all that well, mostly because it was new concept for them.
However, when Jill got to the end of her speech, where she talked about a local dentist who had been about to go broke because he had a lack of patients, and after Jill did her work, she said "and instead of going broke, he had to hire more staff!".
At that point, you could see the the audience just light up. The MC noted it, too, and commented on it. The language resonated. At that point, the idea became simple and obvious.
SEO is really about growing business.
Everyone could relate to that, where they couldn't relate to rankings, links, and keywords or any of the other process elements SEOs often talk about. A lot of SEO pitches, particularly to customers who are new to SEO, focus too much on the "how". However, the "how" is not evident. Rankings, links, keywords...none of that is simple.
The evident thing is that more customers arrive on the site and buy, or sign up for, something.
So, when pitching SEO, try to focus a lot less on the "how", and a lot more on the "why". Structure your offering around improving the customers business. If you can't do that, there is no point doing SEO. SEO, in itself, is not evident.
The business building benefits of SEO certainly are.
If you want to increase revenue, should you focus on getting more out of your existing customers? Slicing your offering finer in order to better appeal to a segment of the existing market?
That's one way.
But how about looking closely at non-customers. Why are all those people not buying what you, or any of your competitors, have to offer? Are there any commonalities between the non buyers?
I'm reading a book called Blue Ocean Strategy. The author offers the following example that illustrates why focusing on the commonalities of the non-customers can be a good idea:
Think of Callaway Golf.
It aggregated new demand for its golf club offering by looking at non-customers. Rather than fighting to win a share of the existing golf market, they looked at why people hadn't taken up golf.
By looking at why people had shied away from golf, they found one commonality uniting the mass of non-customers: hitting the golf ball was perceived as being too difficult. The small size of the club head demanded enormous hand-eye co-ordination, took time to master, and took a lot of concentration. As a result, this was no fun for novices, so they avoided taking up the sport in the first place.
So what did Callaway do?
They built a club with a bigger club-head, thus making it much easier to hit the ball. Not only did this open up a whole new market of buyers, it appealed to players in the existing market who were having the same problem
What Do Your Non Customers Have In Common?
Let's take a look at the SEO industry.
In my experience, a commonality of non-buyers of SEO perceive that SEO simply won't work. They fear they will pay money, and not get any results.
Therefore, in order to convert more of the non-SEO customers to buyers, the SEO should focus heavily on mitigating the risk of non-performance. They should also clearly demonstrate value.
The SEO industry tends to shy away from offering guarantees. This is understandable, given that rankings aren't controlled by the SEO, and therefore guaranteeing a ranking is simply being misleading.
But why focus on guaranteeing ranking? How about guaranteeing that you'll add value, instead?
Ask yourself: can you guarantee to deliver more value to the client than they pay you? Can you increase the value of their business by doing so? If you answer no to such questions, then you'll begin to understand why there are so many non-SEO customers.
Figure out what the customer perceives as valuable, and guarantee to deliver it. After all, what is the difference between a contractual obligation and a guarantee? You need to deliver regardless, but a guarantee just sounds better. It certainly helps mitigate the sense of risk.
Let The Customer Decide What Is Valuable
A lot of SEO sites describe the services an SEO thinks s/he can deliver.
Instead, how about asking the customer what services they think are valuable. You'll learn a lot just by asking such a question. And the more people you ask, the more chances you'll have of spotting commonalities.
How about running an Adwords campaign that asks people to answer a few simple questions about why they don't buy SEO services?
This could work for any good or service, of course - not just SEO.
You'll also see what language potential customers use. It is especially important when stating benefits to do so in the customers terms. Your language should be their language.
They'll feel you understand them.
What would an SEO that spoke exclusively in the language of the customer look like? I guarantee it would look nothing like most of the SEO sites out there right now.
How Bad do They Want it?
When Aaron interviewed Perry Marshall about using AdWords to find market opportunities Perry suggested asking consumers how bad they want something and how hard they are struggling to get it.
Ignore the answers where consumers say they aren't struggling very hard. Look at the answers where the consumers find something extremely difficult, and need that thing badly.
That is good or service people will gladly pay for.
People Who Can't Afford What You Offer
There is a huge, huge market for SEO services. Everyone could be doing better in the search engines.
So you've got to ask - why aren't SEOs getting through to these people? Is the SEO offering simply wrong?
The price will always put some people off. But rather than dismiss these people as non-customers, think about what you can sell them for what money they do have.
Perhaps they can't afford a full campaign, but they certainly might be able to afford a one hour phone call. How about providing a pay-per-minute SEO phone line? How about providing a specific e-book, personalized to the customers site and problem? They can do the work themselves, you just outline exactly "how".
This could always lead to more work when they do have more of a budget.
Customers Who Don't Know What SEO Is
The size of this market is the biggest of all.
The reason this market remains untapped is mostly down to language and visibility. SEOs simply aren't talking the same language, and both parties cross like ships in the night, unaware of each others presence. That's if they get anywhere near each other to begin with.
Why are you going to yet another SEO conference? Why aren't you going to dental conferences? Or hotel conferences? Or any other conference where general marketing is being discussed?
You might be the only SEO there!
All industries have common problems e.g. how to acquire new customers. You know how to do that. They don't. That's valuable to them. They need you.
You need to go where they are, and talk their language. Get hold of their trade magazines and visit their websites. What language do they use to describe their problems? I guarantee it isn't the language you read on SEO blogs and bulletin boards each day. It is a million miles from there.
Look the problems that you can solve, and use their language to describe what you do.
Got any tactics and ideas on how to turn non-buyers into buyers? Add them to the comments.
We get a lot of positive feedback about our flowcharts.
It pays to remember the attention grabbing, and link-grabbing, power of graphics. It can be counter-intuitive for SEOs to use images, because we spend so much time thinking about the written (key)word.
This is a hunch, but I'm guessing peoples attention spans on the web are getting shorter, especially as they become accustomed to "quick hit" sites like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Digg, et al. Images help hook people in. Also, people scan web pages. Jakob Nielsen has long advocated breaking up copy using large headings, thus providing visual cues that help readers deal with large blocks of text.
And let's not forget easy top ten placement in Google's universal search results....
They certainly can't justify blogging about cleaning up manipulative spam anymore if they are going to offer that up as a friendly SEO tip.
Google considers redirecting expired domains for links to be a black hat SEO practice. Danny Sullivan recently quoted Matt Cutts on buying domain names:
"The sort of stuff our systems would be designed to detect would be things like someone trying to buy expired domains or buying domains just for links." - Matt Cutts
What Matt reveals is how Google would work in an ideal world, however some domains slip through. If Google ever finds them then they may ignore it or they may burn everything to the ground based on some small percentage of the site's link profile relying on expired links. Matt Cutts got started building the webspam team at Google when he found an expired domain (with a link from the W3C) that was converted to a porn website.
Screw Buying Links, Buy Rankings
If Matt Cutts claims that he does not like the buying of sites for links, what about buying sites for their rankings? (Isn't that what the links are for?) Could buying rankings possibly be any better? Bankrate's CEO admited to buying CreditCardGuide.com for Google rankings in the media (and in a press release published at investor.bankrate.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=334008 )
"As an affiliate of Nationwide Card Services, which we acquired this past December, we have worked with CreditCardGuide and have been able to watch their growth and momentum firsthand," stated Thomas R. Evans, President and CEO of Bankrate. "CCG has done a great job of developing its organic traffic and ranks highly in a number of important credit card search terms. Adding more direct, high-quality traffic to our credit card business will grow our revenue and improve the margins in this important category," Mr. Evans added.
If I issued a press release about buying a site for its strong links or strong rankings the Google engineering team would probably burn it to the ground on principal. It would not last a day. But it is ok if BankRate does it.
Many Businesses Are Built Off Search
Lots of sites are bought for their links. Business models are built off of extending out a shell of a site with links. Look at the (low) quality of content published on sites like eHow. Would such incentivized user generated content like that have any chance at ranking if it were not built on an old trusted domain purchased for the project?
If Google wants to corrupt many new links with nofollow and put excessive weight on old websites then people will buy old sites. It is simply a game of economics. Every algorithm move causes an obvious reaction. There is already a market in selling Facebook profiles. What is so bad about buying and selling domain names and websites?
Search Engines Aid Illegal Businesses
Content is bought and sold. And sometimes it is stolen
It is no secret that Google is being called the next pirate bay. And with good reason, for anyone selling content online. If you sell desirable content, Google will recommend the torrent, a practice which likely makes them liable for contributory infringement and/or vicarious infringement.
Have cash and want some editorial links? There is probably a good court case to be had suing Google for that infringement.
It hurts the mainstream media's credibility when they steal a bit of content, but most of those millions of pages of stolen content wrapped in AdSense have no brand or legitimate business to protect.
Just like the scammers offering "free" government grants (complete with reverse billing fraud) through AdWords. Google's public relations team lied to ClickZ and the FTC when they said they cleaned up those grant ads over a month ago, as those scam ads are still running.
Google's Lack of Morals
Which is worse
buying a link or site that may have a commercial offer on it
claiming to be the moral police of the web, while knowingly selling ads to advertisers that are defrauding consumers, and lying about cleaning it up once questioned by authorities?
Google added a feature to search for similar images and has a claim your content feature for video, but what is taking Google so long to create a similar system for textual content? It won't appear until they get enough blowback that it makes financial sense for it to appear.
Search is Not About Relevancy (or User Experience)
If search engines were concerned with user experience they wouldn't sell ads to scammers (and lie about cleaning it up).
If search was about relevancy go compare would at least rank for their brand name. But they don't. And so would John Chow and Text Link Ads. But they do not.
Search is not about relevancy or the user. It is about ensuring profits and maintaining the perception of control. It's simple as that, really.
"When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal." - Bob Dylan
When your website's got no rankings, you got no traffic to lose
You're website is invisible now, you got no links to conceal.
Do not let another organization's self-serving (and hypocritical) guidelines control your every move...especially if you are so new and unestablished that your biggest risk is never gaining traction.
The biggest risk you can ever take is taking no risk at all.
You can't benefit from pull marketing unless you first do push marketing.
You can't be a market maker without first being a market manipulator.
If you are new, network effects are working against you right now.
YouTube used a legal loophole to loot billions of dollars of copyright content. Had they "played by the rules" they wouldn't have been bought by Google for $1.65 billion. And you would not get to enjoy this wonderful video right now