Persuasion Optimization

Oct 2nd
posted in

There are many ways to optimize.

We optimize to align a site with search engine algorithms in order to gain higher rankings, which, in turn, leads to visitor traffic. Other forms of optimization occur after the visitor has landed on our pages.

One such optimization is called persuasion optimization.

After going to the effort of getting a visitor to land on our pages, the last thing we want them to do is to click back. We want them to read and act upon our messages.

There Are Many Ways To Persuade

Robert Cialdini, a Professor of Psychology at Arizona State University, identified six categories into which persuasion techniques commonly fall: reciprocity, consistency, social proof, liking, authority and scarcity.

We can use these techniques to optimize both our content and site design so that visitors are more likely to stay on our pages, and more likely to convert to desired action.

Whilst these techniques could be seen as being manipulative, it depends how they’re used. If used in good faith, they’re a natural part of the ritual involved in selling people on our point of view. On the other hand, being aware of these techniques makes them easy to spot if used against us!

1. Reciprocity

Reciprocity is when we give something to someone, and they return the favour. The act of reciprocity is so ingrained in our culture, it can occur whether the person asked for the favor or not, and whether the people involved previously knew each other, or not.

Reciprocity creates an obligation.

Examine your offer to see if you can give something of real value away. For example, some information product vendors give away large chunks of the product, or long trials. People may reciprocate by paying for the remaining sections or full product. They may have been less likely to do so if the vendor gave less value up front. Think about what you can do for your audience, rather than the other way around.

Another way of thinking about reciprocity is to provide a concession. If you concede something small, but do so early, the other party may feel obligated to concede something greater later on.

For example, ask for something significant. When this is turned down, ask for something moderate - the moderate request being what you wanted all along. The second request is more likely to be accepted as it appears you’ve already made a concession, so the other party feels obligated to do likewise.

2. Commitment and Consistency

People like people to be consistent.

People who lack consistency can be seen as untrustworthy or disorganized. If we’re consistent, it reduces complexity, because other people don’t have to re-evaluate us each time they need to make a decision about us. They merely need to remain consistent with their previous evaluation of us, and their previous decision. If we start acting differently, it forces a re-evaluation.

The same goes for websites.

Look for areas of your website where the messages may conflict. This could be as obvious as a mistake in the copy about the offer, or as subtle as a change in tone of voice. Each page should flow from one to the next in a consistent manner, using consistent tone and design, and the message should not contradict, or wander off on unexpected tangents.

There are exceptions of course. If you’re trying to shock people, or draw attention to something out of the ordinary, then playing against consistency can work. However, consistency would have to have been established first, before it’s possible to successfully play against it.

3. Social Proof

Does your site show evidence that other people find it valuable? Examples may include testimonials, reviews, and associations.

Social proof helps establish trust quickly by leveraging existing trust relationships. If someone trusts those associations you cite - say, “As seen in the New York Times” - or is merely inclined to trust the crowd over their own judgement, then the path of least resistance is to trust you, too.

Establishing trust quickly is critical online, because it’s easy for the user to click back, so social proof can be a very powerful technique.

It’s also easy to get wrong, as to can look contrived. People are most likely to be persuaded by social proof if the person or entity providing the proof is a known authority. Who does your audience already know and trust? Some sites make the mistake of using testimonials from non-entities.

4. Liking

People like to do business with those they like.

Attractive people, rightly or wrongly, can be persuasive, as others tend to assign them positive traits. At a base level, the use of physically attractive male and female models is a staple of the advertising industry. At a higher level, people respond to people who are like them. The attraction is based on similarity.

In terms of web marketing, your level of “likeability” will very much depend on the audience. A
site selling fashion is likely to be aspirational i.e. less like the actual audience, but exhibiting attractive traits to which the audience aspires. A site selling technical solutions will likely focus on familiarity and affinity. A site about weighty subjects will likely convey intellectualism. It's all a way of mirroring the audience, either literally who they are or how they perceive they are, in order to be liked.

Another aspect of liking is association. Look at ways you can associate yourself with entities or people you visitors already like. Common tactics include aligning your site with a charity, celebrity or industry event.

5. Authority

People often respond to authority figures.

“Correct conduct” is a response to authority figures. For example, the “white hat/black hat” positioning in SEO is defined by an authority figure, in this case, the search engine and their representatives.

Authority on websites can be conveyed using symbols, qualifications and associations. However, these days, people tend to more cynical of authority than in times past. They will likely question authority by wanting to see evidence of claims made, and try to establish if the person telling them the information is trustworthy.

Does your site offer evidence and proof of your claims?

6. Scarcity

We tend to undervalue what is plentiful, and overvalue what is scarce.

An overt use of this tactic is to create artificial scarcity, particularly in the frauduct world. For example, I’m sure you’ve seen aggressive marketers claiming there are only so many places/products left, in an attempt to make you perceive scarcity, so you’re more inclined to act impulsively.

Cialdini notes:

“According to psychological reactance theory, people respond to the loss of freedom by wanting to have it more. This includes the freedom to have certain goods and services. As a motivator, psychological reactance is present throughout the great majority of a person's life span. However, it is especially evident at a pair of ages: "the terrible twos" and the teenage years. Both of these periods are characterized by an emerging sense of individuality, which brings to prominence such issues as control, individual rights, and freedoms. People at these ages are especially sensitive to restrictions”.

People are most attracted to scarcity when they are newly scare i.e. they haven’t always been scarce, and secondly, when other people are competing for the same resources. In terms of a website, these two concepts could be combined. Time is both running out, and demand has been overwhelming. This is also a form of social proof, of course.

Summary

Seth Godin said “All Marketers Are Liars”

There are elements of manipulation and story-telling in marketing, and no doubt you can see these concepts in some of the worst examples of web marketing. But they also exist in some of the best. And no doubt we all use some of these techniques, possibly unknowingly, in our everyday lives.

These ideas can be very powerful when combined on a website. Try evaluating your competitors against each of the six categories. Have they used them well? Overused them? Then audit your own site, experiment and track changes.

A little effort spent on persuasion can go a long way to maximizing the value of the traffic you have already won.

Insulating Ourselves From Google's Whims

Sep 26th
posted in

Ranking well for our chosen keywords involves putting in a lot of effort up front, with no guarantee of ranking, or reward.

Even if we do attain rankings, and even if do get rewarded, there is no guarantee this situation will last. And this state of flux, for many seos, is only likely to get worse as Google advises that updates will be “jarring and julting for a while

Even more reason to make every visitor count.

If we can extract higher value from each visitor, by converting them from visitor to customers, and from short term customers to long term customers, then our businesses are less vulnerable to Google’s whims. We don’t need to be as focused on acquiring new visitors.

There is great value to be had in optimizing the entire marketing chain.

Hunting For Customers Vs Keeping Customers

It comes down to cost.

According to a Harvard Study a few years back, it can cost five times as much to acquire a new customer as it does to keeping a current customer happy. Of course, your mileage may vary, as whether it really costs five times as much, or three, or seven really depends what your cost structure.

However, this concept is an important one for search marketers, as it’s reasonable to assume that the cost of acquiring customers, via keyword targeting, is rising as Google makes the marketing process of keyword targeting more expensive than it has been in the past. This trend is set to continue.

If the cost of customer acquisition is rising, it can make sense to look at optimizing the offer, the conversion rates and optimizing the value of existing customers.

Underlying Fundamentals

If you have something a lot of people desperately need, and there isn’t much competition, it typically doesn’t cost much to land those customers. They come to you. If you have something genuinely scarce, or even artificially scarce, people will line up.

The problem is that most businesses don’t enjoy such demand. They must compete with other businesses offering similar products and services. So, if there is a scarcity issue, it’s a scarcity of customers, not service and product providers.

However, by focusing on a specific niche, businesses can eliminate a lot of competition, and thereby reduce the marketing cost. For example, a furniture manufacturer could conceivably make furniture for a wide variety of customers, from commercial offices, to industry, to the home.

But if they narrowed their focus to, say, private jet fit-outs, they eliminate a lot of their competition. They’d also have to determine if that niche is lucrative, of course, but as you can see, it’s a way of eliminating a lot of competition simply by adding focus and specialization.

By specializing, they are more likely to enjoy higher quality leads - i.e. leads that may result in a sale - than if they targeted broadly, as it is difficult to be all things to all people The cost of marketing to a broad target market can be higher, as can the level of competition in the search results pages, and the quality of leads can be lower.

Conversion Optimization

Once we’re focused on our niche, and we’ve got targeted visitors coming in, how can we ensure fewer visitors are wasted?

Those who do a lot of PPC will be familiar with conversion optimization, and we’ll dive deep into this fascinating area over the coming weeks, but it’s a good concept for those new to SEO, and internet marketing in general, to keep at front of mind.

You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get people to your site, so make sure they don’t click back once they arrive!

Here’s a great case study by a company called Conversion Rate Experts. It outlines how to structure pages to improve conversion rates. Whilst the findings are the result of testing and adaptation, and are specific to each business, there are a few few key lessons here:

Length of the page. In this case, a long page improved conversion rates by 30%. Of course, it’s not a numbers game, more the fact that the longer page allowed more time to address objections and answer visitor questions.

As Conversion Rate Experts point out:

The media would have us believe that people no longer have any capacity to concentrate. In reality, you cannot have a page that’s too long—only one that’s too boring. In the case of Crazy Egg’s home page, visitors wanted their many questions answered and that’s what we delivered. (If you’d like more people to scroll down your long pages, see the guide we wrote on the topic.)”

It’s best to experiment, to see what works best in your own situation, but, generally speaking, it pays to offer the visitor as much timely information as possible, as opposed to short copy if there is a analytical, need-oriented motivation. Short copy can work better if the customer is impulsive.

As we see in the Crazy Egg case study, by anticipating and addressing specific objections, and moving the customer closer to the point of sale, the webpage is doing the job of the salesperson. This is an area where SEO and PPC, linked with conversion rate optimization, can add a ton of value.

The second interesting point was they optimized the long-term value of the customer to the company by making a time-sensitive offer.

The one-time offer test illustrates another important principle of conversion optimization: Don’t let the fear of a short-term loss stand in the way of a long-term gain

The offer they made turned a short-term customer into a long-term customer. If we have a lot of long term customers on our books, it can take some of the pressure off the need to constantly acquire new customers.

Optimize Everything

We engage in SEO because there are many similar sites.

The benefit of SEO is we can occupy premium real estate. If we appear high on the search result pages, we are more likely than our competitors to command the customers attention. But we stand to gain a lot more stability if we are not wholly reliant on occupying the top spots, and therefore less vulnerable to Google’s whims.

Nailing Down Opportunities

Sep 20th
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A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty

If you’re one of the many webmasters feeling hammered by Penguin and Panda, you’d be forgiven for thinking the best opportunities in search are long gone. Perhaps it’s all gotten just a bit too complicated.

In reality, internet marketing is still just a toddler taking baby steps. Opportunity abounds. It’s a case of looking for it, finding it and capitalizing on it.

So how?

In this post. we’ll look at the nature of opportunities, and how to spot them.

People Always Have Problems

If you look at these stories, you’ll notice a common thread.

Honest Tea solved a problem. People wanted bottled organic tea. VMail solved a problem. Small businesses needed a cheap VoIP solution. Ben and Jerry solved a problem. There was no ice cream shop in their town.

Opportunity is the chance to solve a problem. To fill a need. If no one is solving that problem, and that problem is a difficult one the customer, and the customer is desperate to solve it, then the stronger the marketing opportunity will be.

Are there any fewer needs than there were last year? Than before the financial crash? There are just as many needs, as there are just as many people, and as life grows ever more complex, their needs become greater. Their needs may change. They might want fewer luxury products and better deals on everyday products. Next year, it might be the other way around.

Where There Are Problems, There Are Marketing Opportunities

We find marketing opportunities - good ones - when there is a high probability we’ll satisfy a market need, and do so profitably.

  • Is it about finding a keyword with high search volumes?
  • Is it about doing what the the successful people are doing?
  • Is it about doing what everyone else is doing, but just being better at SEO than they are?

Possibly, but this type of thinking is more to do with tactics than opportunity. A marketing opportunity is better evaluated for a higher level. Take the 5,000 ft view.

Ask:

  • Can I supply something in short supply?
  • Can I improve on an existing product or service in way that is considerably superior?
  • Can I supply a genuinely new product of service?

For example, there is a market opportunity for search engine news. Is it a good opportunity for a new entrant? Probably not, as this market is saturated by established players. The audience already have their needs met.

However, there might be better opportunities for news on, say, 3d printers, or some other emerging technology where there is a need, but it isn’t well served. Of course, these opportunities can narrow over time as more and more people see the opportunity, and move into the space.

Perhaps the most lucrative opportunities score highly in each area. They are in short supply, they are relatively new, and you can improve on something people already do.

A good example would be the iPhone. When they came out, there was only one iPhone, they were new(ish) idea for the target market, and they integrated functions people already performed, but did so in a superior way. It’s little wonder Apple could charge such high margins on them, and it took competitors a long time to catch up. Anyone releasing a smartphone today would have to improve on those areas - price point is probably the obvious opportunity - in order to be able to compete.

How To Nail Down The Opportunities

There are various methods marketers do to test their conceptions. Let's look at three.

One method is the problem detection method. Try asking people if they have any problems with their existing service. For example, a prospective SEO customer might say “I’d like to spend more on SEO, but I don’t know if my spend will be worthwhile”. The opportunity is to figure out a way to show it will be worthwhile if the customer spends more, which might involve offering a money-back guarantee, or a pay on performance arrangement, or some other way to improve that problem the customer has with existing services.

Another way is the ideal method. Ask the customer what would be their ideal product or service. Often, customers will describe fanciful things, but listening to their whims can help you think of products and services you may not have thought of yourself, as it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking within the constraints of your industry. At one time, a customer may have wanted no time delay between ordered a meal and receiving the meal. This probably sounded like an impossible ideal to a restaurateur at the turn of the century, used to waiters and a kitchen staff, but an opportunity to Mr McDonald, who thought more in terms of an industrial process. And Ray Kroc scaled it from there.

Another method is the consumption chain method. You track the consumption of the product or service from start to finish, and see if there are any steps in the chain that can be improved upon. Questions to ask are how people become aware of the product or service, how do customers make their purchase decisions, if they need to consult someone else to make the purchase decision, how they get the product or service, where they store it, how often they use it, and so on. At each step in the chain, there is a chance to make a change, to optmize, and to make better.

We’ve only touched on the ideas on ways to seize opportunities. How have you discovered opportunities in the past? What is your process for spotting new opportunities? Please add them to the comments!

Change Your Offer Without Changing Your Product

Sep 11th
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Have you been selling a product or service for some time, but think you might need to do something new to keep up with the market? Offer something fresh?

One of the problems with making significant changes to your products or services is that it tends to carry a high level of risk. There is a risk you could alienate your existing prospects. There is always risk in starting over and trying something new and untested, as the untried and untested is more likely to fail.

But what if you could change your product or service without really changing it at all! Here are a few ideas on how to make changes, by changing the pitch, and without going to the effort, or taking the risk of making fundamental changes.

Positioning

One of the great things about direct marketing, of which search marketing is a part, is that we’re not likely to be starting with products and services that have had an awareness and associations built up over many years - like Coca-Cola, for example. We get to modify the position, if we so choose.

Position, in marketing, means perception. Perception in the minds of the prospective customer. We can appeal to perceptions, or shape our product to fit perceptions, depending on what our prospects want.

For example, we could take the same car and market it to two different groups using positioning. To one group, we emphasize safety features above all else. To another group, we emphasize performance. The product doesn’t change, but the positioning does, and thus appeals to different groups of buyers. In reality, a car manufacturer probably wouldn’t do this, at least not in the same market, as it could send confusing messages.

However, on the web, we can often chop and change products, and target different groups, and one doesn’t necessarily need to overlap another.

Vertical Positioning

A vertical is a group of similar businesses and customers that engage in trade based on specific and specialized need. They may be a subset of a larger market. For example, PPC is a vertical within internet marketing, itself a subset of general marketing.

In terms of positioning within vertical markets, imagine you’re a software developer in the search marketing space. If you were talking to a group of manufacturers, and want to talk about what you do in a way that is understandable to this audience, you might talk to them in broad terms about marketing.

If you were talking to a group of marketers you might talk more specifically about search marketing. If you were talking to a room full of search marketers, you might talk more specifically again about the PPC optimization software you’re working on. If you were talking to a room of PPC optimization software developers.....and so on.

They are all part of the same market - and they might all need what you have - but each audience exists in different verticals, and so you change the message to suit. Changing vertical positioning is when you target a different vertical within the same market. An example of this might be a landlord who rents out a house to a single tenant changes to renting it out students on a room by room basis with “shared facilities”. She’s still in the accommodation provision market, the product is the same, but it is pitched to a different niche.

Can you identify different verticals in your market to which you product or service might also appeal? Can you configure your product, without making fundamental changes, so that it appeals to the needs of a different niche within your market?

Positioning In Time

Positioning in time, sometimes described as horizontal positioning in direct marketing circles, refers to the point in time when a person buys something, and positioning the message to appeal to different buyers depending on where they are in the buy-cycle.

For example, if someone is genuinely new to your product, and doesn’t even know they want it, then you could pitch your advertising based on the benefits your product provides. If I wanted to sell, say, a revolutionary new power cell, I wouldn’t talk about specifications to someone unfamiliar with the product, I’d talk about the fact that it replaces the need to be on an electricity grid, so the buyer doesn’t need to pay line charges. I’d emphasize benefits.

If someone is already aware of these new power cells, and knows all the benefits, I would likely emphasize other aspects, such as features and price more than benefits, as the buyer should already understand them.

This type of positioning will be familiar to people who do a lot of PPC. The link text, message and landing page changes to accommodate buyers at different stages in the sales cycle. The product doesn’t change, but the message does.

Isolate

Another way to reposition a product or service is to use an isolation technique. Take a single aspect of the product and make it a major part of the offer. For example, TIME magazine sells subscriptions to a magazine, but their advertising often focuses on the “free” gifts that accompany a subscription. This technique is often used when the main product itself is well known to the audience, and there’s not much new that can be said about it.

Many software companies who formerly sold their software now give their software away as part of a freeware model, but sell software support and maintenance services around it. They isolate an aspect that was always there - service - but now emphasize it, and push the actual product into the background. This tends to happen when the product becomes commodity and there are few ways to differentiate it without making significant changes.

Combine

Think about bundling products or services together to appeal to a different vertical.

For example, there might be a small market for individual electronic components, but a large market for a “phone tapping device”. Something Woz and Steve Jobs built a company on.

Music distribution companies, like Spotify, take individual tunes, bundle them together as a huge library, and sell subscriptions to it, as opposed to selling on a song by song, basis, like iTunes do.

Individual garden plants and potting accessories might not be very interesting, but bundled together as a “kitchen greenhouse” they might appeal to an audience of foodies who don’t necessarily see themselves as gardeners.

Further Reading

Three Ways To Break Down A Market

Sep 11th
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Ford said “give the customer any color they want, so long as it is black”. This strategy worked for a while, because people just wanted a car. However, the market changed when GM decided they would offer a range of cars to suit different “purposes, purses and personalities”.

Between 1920 and 1923, Ford’s market share plummeted from 55 to 12 percent.

These days, auto manufacturers segment the market, rather than treat it as one homogeneous mass. There are cars for the rich, cars for the less well off, cars built for speed, and cars built for shopping.

Manufacturers do this because few manufacturers can cater to very large markets where the consumer has infinite choice. To be all things to all people is impossible, but to be the best for a smaller, well-defined group of people is a viable business strategy. It costs less to target, and therefore has less risk of failure. Search marketing is all about targeting, so let's take a look at various ways to think about targeting in terms of the underlying marketing theory which might give you a few ideas on how to refine and optimize your approach.

While there are many ways to break down a market, here are three main concepts.

Segments

Any market can be broken down into segments. A segment means “a group of people”. We can group people by various means, however the most common forms of segmentation include:

Benefit segmentation: a group of people who seek similar benefits. For example, people who want bright white teeth would seek a toothpaste that includes whitener. People who are more concerned with tooth decay may choose a toothpaste that promises healthy teeth.

Demographic Segmentation: a group of people who share a similar age, gender, income, occupation, education, religion, race and nationality. For example, retired people may be more interested in investment services than a student would, as retired people are more likely to have capital to invest.

Occasion Segmentation: a group of people who buy things at a particular time. Valentines Day is one of the most popular days for restaurant bookings. People may buy orange juice when they think about breakfast time, but not necessarily at dinner. The reverse is true for wine.

Usage Segmentation: a group of people who buy certain volumes, or at specific frequencies. For example, a group of people might dine out regularly, vs those who only do so occasionally. The message to each group would be different.

Lifestyle segmentation: a group of people who may share the same hobbies, or live a certain way. For example, a group of people who collect art, or a group of people who are socialites.

The aim is to find a well-defined market opportunity that is still large enough to be financially viable. If one segment is not big enough, a business may combine segments - say, young people (demographic) who want whiter teeth (benefit). The marketing for this combined segment would be different - and significantly more focused - that the more general “those who want whiter teeth” (benefit) market segment, alone.

How does this apply to search and internet marketing in general?

It’s all about knowing your customer. “Knowing the customer” is an easy thing to say, and something of a cliche, but these marketing concepts can help provide us with a structured framework within which to test our assumptions.

Perhaps that landing page I’ve been working on isn’t really working out. Could it be because I haven’t segmented enough? Have I gone too broad in my appeal? Am I talking the language of benefits when I should really be focusing on usage factors? What happens if I combine “demographics” with “occassion”?

Niches

Niches are similar to segments, but even more tightly defined based on unique needs. For example, “search engine marketing education” is a niche that doesn’t really fit usefully within segments such as demographics, lifestyle or occasion.

The advantage of niche targeting is that you may have few competitors and you may be able to charge high margins, as there is a consumer need, but very few people offer what you do. The downside is that the niche could weaken, move, or disappear. To mitigate this risk, businesses will often target a number of niches - the equivalent of running multiple web sites - reasoning that if one niche moves or disappears, then the other niches will take up the slack.

Search marketing has opened up many niches that didn’t previously exist due to improved marketing efficiency. It doesn’t cost much to talk to people anywhere in the world. Previously, niches that required a global audience in order to be viable were prohibitive due to the cost of reaching people spread over such a wide geographic area.

To function well in a niche, smaller companies typically need to be highly customer focused and service oriented as small niche businesses typically can’t drive price down by ramping volume.

Cells

Cells are micro-opportunities. This type of marketing is often overlooked, but will become a lot more commonplace on the web due to the easy access to data.

For example, if you collect data about your customers buying habits, you might be able to identify patterns within that data that create further marketing opportunities.

If you discover that twenty people bought both an iPhone and a PC, then they may be in the market for software products that makes it easy for the two devices to talk to each other. Instead of targeting the broader iPhone purchaser market, you might tailor the message specifically for the iphone plus PC people, reasoning that they may be having trouble getting the two devices to perform certain functions, and would welcome a simple solution.

Further Reading:

Pitching Search Marketing In Traditional Marketing Terms

Sep 7th
posted in

For those selling search marketing to customers, especially those customers new to the concept of search marketing, it’s often useful to pitch search marketing services in terms the customer already understands.

A lot search marketing theory and practice is borrowed and adapted from direct marketing. Direct marketing concepts have been around since the 60s, and may be more readily understood by some customers than some of the arcane terminology sometimes associated with SEO/SEM.

Here are some ideas on how to link search marketing and direct marketing concepts.

1. Targeting & Segmentation

A central theme of direct marketing is targeting.

On broadcast television, advertisers show the one advertisement to many people, and hope it will be relevant to a small fraction of that audience. Most television advertising messages are wasted on people who aren't interested in those messages. It’s a scattergun, largely untargeted approach.

Search marketing, a form of direct marketing, is targeted. Search marketers target their audience based on the specific keywords the audience use.

Search marketing is concerned with the most likely prospects - a small fraction of the total audience. Further, if we analyse the visitor behavior of people using specific keyword terms post-click, we can find out who are the hottest prospects amongst that narrowly defined group.

The widely accepted 20-80 rule says that 20% of your customers create 80% of your business. An example might be "luxury vacations France", as opposed to "vacations France". If we have higher margins on luxury travel, then segmenting to focus on the frequent luxury travel buyer, as opposed to a less frequent economy buyer whom we still might sell to, but at lower margins, might be more in line with business objectives. Defining, and refining, keyword terms can help us segment the target market.

2. Focus

Once you get a search visitor to your site, what happens next?

They start reading. Such a specific audience requires focused, detailed information, and a *lot* of it, or they will click back.

It is a mistake to pitch to an "average" audience at this point i.e. to lose focus. If we’ve done our job correctly, and segmented our visitors using specific keyword terms, we already know they are interested in what we offer.

To use our travel example above, the visitor who typed in “luxury vacations in France” wants to hear all about luxury vacations in France. They are unlikely to want a pitch about how wonderful France, as a country, is, as the keyword term suggests they’ve already made their mind up about destination. Therefore, a simplistic, generalized message selling French tourism is less likely to work.

Genuine buyers - who will spend thousands on such vacations - will want a lot of detail about luxury travel in France, as this is unlikely to be a trivial purchase they make often. That generally means offering long, detailed articles, not short ones. It means many options, not few. It means focusing on luxury travel, and not general travel.

Simple, but many marketers get this wrong. They go for the click, but don’t focus enough on the level of detail required by hot prospects i.e. someone most likely to buy.

3. Engagement

One advantage of the web is that we can spend a lot of time getting a message across once a hot prospect has landed on a site. This is not the case on radio. Radio placements only have seconds to get the message across. Likewise, television slots are commonly measured in 15 and 30 second blocks.

On the web, we can engage a visitor for long periods of time. The message becomes as long as the customer is prepared to hear it.

4. Personalized

The keyword tells you a lot about visitor intent. “Luxury travel France” is a highly targeted term that suggests a lot about the visitor i.e. their level of spend and tastes. If we build keyword lists and themes associated with this term, we can personalize the sales message using various landing pages that talk specifically to the needs of the visitor. Examples might include “Five Star Hotels”, “Luxury Car Hire”, “Best Restaurants In Paris”, and so on. Each time they click a link, or reveal a bit more about themselves,we can start to personalize the message. Personalized marketing works well because the message is something the prospect is willing to hear. It’s specifically about them.

We can personalize the journey through the site, configuring customized pathways so we can market one-to-one. We see this at work on Amazon.com. Amazon notes your search and order history and prompts you with suggestions based on that history. One-to-many marketing approaches, as used in newspapers, on radio and on television typically aren’t focused and lack personalization. They may work well for products with broad appeal, but work less well for defined niches.

5. Active Response

We’re not just interested in views, impressions, or reach. We want the visitor to actively respond. We want them to take a desired, measurable action. This may involve filling out a form, using a coupon, giving us an email address, and/or making a purchase.

Active response helps make search marketing spends directly accountable and measurable.

6. Accountable

People either visit via a search term, or they don’t.

Whilst there can be some advantage in brand awareness i.e. a PPC ad that appears high on the page, but is only clicked a fraction of the time, the real value is in the click-thru. This is, of course, measurable, as the activity will show up in the site statistics, and can be traced back to the originating search engine.

Compare this with radio, television or print. It’s difficult to know where the customer came from, as their interaction may be difficult to link back to the advertising campaign.

Search marketing is also immediately measurable.

7. Testable

Some keyword terms work, some do not. Some keyword terms only work when combined with landing page X, but not landing page Y. By “work” we tend to mean “achieves a measurable business outcome”.

Different combinations can be tried and compared against one another. Keywords can be tested using PPC. Once we’ve determined what the most effective keywords are in terms of achieving measurable business outcomes, we can flow these through to our SEO campaign. We can do the reverse, too. Use terms that work in our SEO campaigns to underpin our PPC campaigns.

This process is measureable, repeatable and ongoing. Language has near infinite variety. There are many different ways to describe things, and the landing pages can be configured and written in near infinite ways, too. We track using software tools to help determine patterns of behaviour, so we can keep feeding this back into our strategy in order to refine and optimize. We broaden keyword research in order to capture the significant percentage of search phrases that are unique.

Further Reading:

The Search Power Of Brand

Sep 3rd
posted in

In that past, we’ve talked a lot about Google’s brand bias, but no matter how a brand is defined in technical terms, the reality is that Google cannot leave popular brand sites out of the search results.

If a person searches for, say, AVIS, and doesn’t see AVIS in the top spot, then as far as the searcher is concerned, Google is broken. If a person searches for various car rental terms and does not see AVIS somewhere, then it's also likely they'll expect Google is broken.

Google isn’t perceived as broken, however, if car-rental-cars-online.com is nowhere to be seen. Some might argue Google is doing the searcher a favour by ignoring such a site.

Crowded Planet

There was a time on the web when relevant information was harder to come by. Not so now. Now, we have too much information. We don’t even know how big the internet is. They're guessing two trillion pages. And counting.

So, the real competition is clutter.

The real opportunity is to find clear space amongst the throng.

One way to do that is by developing a clear brand identity.

What Is A Brand

A logo? A set of graphics? A catchy name?

Not really.

Plenty of companies have logos, graphics and a catchy name but they do not have strong brand identities. A brand is largely about how other people define you. They define you based on the experience they have when engaging with you.

For example, take Apple. How would you define their brand? The logo? The shops? The fonts they use in their advertising?

These aspects are not Apple’s brand. Apple’s brand is in the way Apple’s customers feel about Apple. It’s a feeling tied up with concepts such fashion, design, innovation and quality - and unique to Apple.

This feeling creates a clear identity in the mind of the customer.

Having a clear identity makes you memorable. People will remember your site name. People will search for your site name. And when enough people do that, then there is little chance Google can ever drop you below number #1 for brand searches. If you get it right, Google will even rank you against relevant related keywords you aren't targeting.

Because Google would look broken if it didn't feature you.

Tooting our own horn here, but if you typed “seo book” into Google, and didn’t see this site, you’d think Google was broken. There are plenty of books on SEO, but only one “seo book” that owns a clear brand identity in this space. And SEO Book gets plenty of traffic from other search search related terms that it does not target, because Google associates the site so strongly with the "SEO education" niche. The people who search on SEO queries click on this site, and once they arrive, they don’t click back too often.

Own Your Space

Any company, no matter how small, can develop unique brands and build their own brand related search stream, and associated searches, over time.

If you run a small company, do you occupy clear space? By clear space, think focused, unique selling proposition. What is the thing you offer that others do not? If other people offer what you do, then what is the thing you do better? How do people describe you? Can they reduce it to an elevator pitch? Is what you offer focused, or confused?

It’s about more than providing something a bit unique. In a cluttered environment, like the web, it's about creating something genuinely different. Probably radically different, given the high level of noise in the search results.

Once you have your differentiation down you can then advertise it, which creates further brand awareness: "High dwell campaigns are three times more efficient at stimulating branded search."

This makes for a more defensible search marketing strategy, because it's difficult for generic competition to emulate you once you've carved out a clear identity. It’s not about offering more features. Or a lower price. Those things are details. It’s about crafting a unique identity that others will know you by. Focus on the parts of your business that really make the money, and considering orienting your entire identity around that one aspect.

The problem with not having a clear identity and point of difference, when it comes to SEO, is that it is a constant battle to maintain position. Google can easily flush all the me-too sites that chase generic keywords and Google’s users aren’t going to complain. The sites with unique identities don’t have to spend near as much time, energy and money maintaining rank.

But hang on, doesn’t this go against everything SEO is about?

There’s nothing wrong with chasing generic terms. It’s a completely valid strategy. However, if we’re in it for the long haul, we should also make an effort to develop a clear, differentiated brand. It means we can own our space in the search results, no matter how Google changes in future.

Look at Trip Advisor. Google may be gunning for the travel space with their own content acquisitions, but they’re going to look deficient if they don’t display TripAdvisor. They are going to look deficient if they don't show Trip Advisor when people are looking for just about any travel review queries, whether Trip Advisor is targeting them or not, because Trip Advisor are synonymous with travel reviews. By not featuring Trip Advisor, Google would merely encourage more people to by-pass Google and search Trip Advisor directly.

That's a powerful place to be.

Not everyone can dominate the travel space like Trip Advisor, of course. But it is worth noting that Trip Advisor started small & the principle is the same, no matter what the niche. It’s about becoming the most memorable site in your niche. No matter if it’s poggo sticks for one legged dogs, then be the go-to site for poggo sticks for one legged dogs. Eventually, word gets around, and such a site become synonymous with poggo sticks for one legged dogs, and associated terms, whether they optimize for related terms, or not.

Google will associate keywords with this site in order to deliver a relevant result, and if this site owns the “poggo sticks for one legged dogs” niche, then their SEO workload is greatly reduced.

Are They Talking About You?

Your brand should be something people will talk about. Where are all the links coming from these days? Social networks. Google pays attention to social signals - tweets, Facebook, Google+ and other social links - because that is the way many links occur. They are markers of attention, and Google will always look for markers of attention.

And as their audiences click through to you, Google gets valuable signals about your relevance to entire groups of people. You can be sure Google is grouping these people by interest - creating demographic profiles - and if your site interests a certain group, then this will flow through into searches made by these groups. Google can also tie many of these users back to their identities by using persistent cookies & Google+.

That's the way it's going. SEO, and wider marketing and brand strategy, will all meld together.

Do You Trust Me?

Aug 30th
posted in

Well, you might - if you knew what a trustworthy guy I am :)

But I know that’s nowhere good enough. I know I would need to earn it.

"Do I trust you?" is a question your web visitors are probably asking themselves right now.

Do they trust your title tag description and snippet enough to click the link? If they click the link, and land on your site, do the trust you enough to stay? Do they trust you enough to click deeper into your site? Do they trust you enough to hand over their e-mail address, or their credit card details?

If your site ranks well, but visitors don't trust it, is your search marketing campaign broken? Blowing an opportunity to form a trust relationship, which can be broken in less than a few seconds online, earns nothing but a click-back.

Webmasters need to establish trust quickly in order to get people to take the next step.

I'm Trustworthy!

All webmasters look to establish trust. We intuitively know that in order to convince someone else of something, they first need to trust us. No webmaster would want to project an air of untrustworthiness, although some mistakenly do, by overlooking a few simple steps.

If you have an existing site, or you are planning a new one, consider undertaking an audit of trust factors.

Your visitors will want to know....

1. Who Am I Dealing With?

This is especially important online, because there is little context to our interaction.

If we walk into a doctors office, we may see medical equipment, and nurses, and qualifications on the wall. It provides us with sufficient context to establish a level of trust that this person is likely a qualified doctor who knows what she is doing. The environment gives us a pretty good idea of who we are dealing with.

Not so online.

A web site, especially a website that is previously unknown to us, provides little in the way of context. Anonymity can lend an air of the mysterious, but it doesn't do much to help establish trust.

Let visitors know who they are dealing with. This doesn’t necessarily involve telling them your life story, or showing them a photo of you and the kids, although that can work well for personalized forms of marketing.

If you don’t already have them, consider adding staff photos and position details, detailed company description and history, and ensure address and contact details are prominently displayed. If you have a physical location, show it. Provide a map. The tech-savvy will likely want to see you on social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, too.

This point is obvious, I know. Most webmasters do it. Audit your site to see if you provides visitors a clear idea of who they are dealing with.

2. Overcome Fear

There is fear in new engagements.

Not spine tingling fear. Just a low level fear of the new. Your visitors may fear your site is wasting their time. They may fear they might be ripped off. They may fear you won't deliver on the promise made explicit in your title tag and heading.

Look at ways to counter fear of the new.

The familiar carries less fear than the unfamiliar. Obviously, if you've already established a reputation, then you will already be familiar to your visitors, and therefore likely appear more trustworthy that someone a visitor doesn't know.

But search marketing is often focused on attracting the new visitor, so an established reputation may not be something we can rely on. This is why it can be good idea to leverage reputation from elsewhere.

For example, a commonly used tactic is the “As Seen In...” references used by sites such as ForSaleByOwner.com. Whilst also providing credibility by association, it is also a means of leveraging the trust in those brands with which the visitor is already familiar.

3. Will This Work For Me?

There’s more to relevance than matching a keyword. How will your solution work for your visitor? How do you know what is really relevant to them when all you have for a clue is a keyword phrase?

This is easier said than done. You need to get inside their head. You need to know their questions and objections and be able to answer them. If people feel you care about solving their problems, they are more likely to trust you.

But how?

Listening. Being clear about what problem you’re going to solve. Is it a real problem, or an imagined one? Look for opportunities to have your visitor define their problem in their own terms, using surveys, visitor tracking, market research (i.e. the language they use in forums, on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, et al)

The best sites seem to know exactly what you are thinking. They reflect you, back at you.

This can be underlined with your copy. Use “you” as opposed to “I”. Look how many times “you” has been used in this copy. This is a very effective selling technique, because your visitors really don’t care about you, they care about them.

4. Deliver

We've dealt with superficial areas, most of which can just as easily be abused by the manipulative and deceitful as used properly by the honest and trustworthy.

Trust also a process. People will judge you by your actions.

  • Tell them what you'll do.
  • Do it.
  • Tell them you've done it.

Does your website demonstrate this? One good way to show process is by using a case study. You outline the problem. Show how you planned to solve it. Then you show that you solved it. For extra points, show how happy people were with the outcome.

Offer free trials, where possible. Offer free downloads. Look for tangible ways to prove you do what you say you do.

Once a visitor has engaged your services, ensure your process is transparent, communicated and you do what you said you’d do.

5. What Will Everyone Else Think?

This is related to fear.

Will I be ridiculed for choosing your service? Made to feel stupid? There was a saying in the IT industry that “no one got fired for buying IBM”. It wasn’t that IBM was necessarily a better provider, it was that many people used them, so there was perceived strength in numbers of the tried and true.
People tend to go where other people are. Can you provide similar social validation?

Customer references are a great way to provide social validation. If the customers are from companies with which your visitor is already familiar, all the better. Faces. Lot’s of happy faces provide social validation.

Also include the number of people who use, or have used, your service.

In summary:

  • Have you let people know who they are dealing with?
  • Have you made reference to the familiar?
  • Have you addressed their needs in their own terms?
  • Have you included references and case studies?
  • Have you done what you’d said you’d do?

PS: Thanks to Seth Godin for the inspiration, off whos' post I’m riffing :)

The Social Media Ponzi Bubble Implodes

Aug 17th

The Next Google?

Facebook had their first tranche of insider lock ups expire yesterday & the stock ended off over 5%. Anyone who has ever invested for a significant period of time knows what the following graphic looks like: the collapse of a bubble.

What has caused such a poor performance for Facebook?

For starters, this couldn't have helped:

If they committed to spending big bucks with Facebook, how could they be assured a return on their investment?

Mr. Zuckerberg's response, according to one of the attendees: "That's a great question and we should probably have an answer to that, shouldn't we?"

Also harming Facebook...

The Real Next Google

Users do not want social in search, but even if they did Google can turn it on with a flick of a switch.

If you want to invest in "the next Google" at a valuation above $100 billion then the best way to do so is to buy Google.

I won't claim that Google's growth there has also passed through to online publishers. It many cases it has not, as Google has begun dominating their own results & pushing competitors below the fold.

SEO is Harder than Ever

Breaking into search with a new site is harder than ever. That is reflected in the static nature of the ecommerce market and just how many ill informed opinions there are about Google's various updates.

Unless you are already well trusted or are willing to hack websites, brute force SEO is getting much harder. Even getting a boatload of exposure like the following graph shows may have zero impact on Google rankings.

Other important trends are:

This does not mean that the opportunity of SEO has disappeared, rather that strategy becomes far more important as the market grows more challenging.

Public Relations

Social media is sold as being revolutionary, but its impact is generally more marginal. What matters is funding the baseline message that then gets syndicated across networks.

Due to the Filter Bubble (& format concision) most people won't question the depths of where they are wrong or dig deep into the background of a story, but rather syndicate the payola headline & biased research that PR professionals wanted them to see.

Out-of-context facts only need to sound good in 140 characters.

Reputation Management

Occasionally a company can be so idiotic that their Progressive(ly) incompetent behavior creates a categorical example of failing their customers. But that sort of failure only matters if it gets shared frequently on blogs & media sites off the social media platforms.

I haven't heard of anyone spending big money to try to have a Tweet rank lower, but people spend significantly trying to drive down bad search results.

Most Tweets are largely forgotten after a few days. A bad search result can create a progressive self-reinforcing problem that lives on as long as a brand does.

Social Media Platforms Begin Lockdown

It isn't just Facebook that has had problems. A number of the other social stocks have tanked.

The problem with social media is that it's performance hasn't been particularly stellar thusfar & they have only just begun to start screwing over people playing on their platforms. A big part of what caused Zynga to miss so badly on their last quarterly result was:

"Facebook made changes to their platform that favored new game discovery," he said. As a result, Zynga users "did not remain engaged and did not come back as often."

That change is in addition to gutting companies that specialized in optimizing Facebook pages & other companies which worked closely with Facebook. Further, Facebook's edgerank limits how many of your subscribers see your own message. They want you to pay once to build a following & then pay again to access the audience of followers you already built.

It is not just Facebook that is locking down their ecosystem. Twitter is headed down the same path: "I sure as hell wouldn’t build a business on Twitter, and I don’t think I’ll even build any nontrivial features on it anymore."

Many mobile start ups are also suffering from the same "saturated ecosystem" problem.

More Social Media Sites Launch

The economic recovery has been uneven & while the above platforms are imploding it hasn't stopped some of the founders from creating more platforms that will also compete for attention.

Why Social Media Isn't as Exciting As Claimed

All Users Are Not Created Equal

There is a difference between targeted search traffic & the stuff that people sell as "unlimited traffic for $6."

Social media can drive some conversions with coupons, but it can also make people (who would have converted anyway) expect coupons and discounts to purchase. Part of the problem with attributing anything to social media is so much of it can be attributed to activity bias. Anyone who follows you & similar business & so on is going to be more likely to convert in those areas. That they at some point in time were on a large social network doesn't mean that the social network added any value to the sequence or caused a conversion.

Even if you know exactly how influential people are it still wouldn't mean that you would be able to influence them (generally the more popular someone is the less receptive they are to pitches). And generally speaking traffic on your site is worth more than traffic from social media sites, as it is already more targeted. This is why traffic exchange systems suck...those atop the pyramid suck most the real value out of it while those lower in the system give away their visitors for scraps.

The #1 rule of online traffic is that relevancy is more important than volume.

False Sense of Closeness & Empathy (Cuts Both Ways)

Online petitions have a low cost (go nowhere & click a mouse), so even in large numbers they usually don't mean much. Whereas people who go through barriers to entries & jump over hurdles are far more committed to a goal.

With sites like Twitter there can be a wow factor in that there is a false sense of closeness, but in reality many celebrities pay others to tweet for them and sell tweets.

And every bit as fake as the "celebrity who really cares about you" there are also the enraged non-customers who try to leverage social media to level the playing field. But in most cases those were never going to be good relationships anyhow. For most people the best solution is to ignore them.

Hits Can Be Somewhat Unpredictable

In addition to the fickle here today, gone tomorrow nature of social media, the results are typically quite unpredictable. What is even more challenging is that you can optimize for relevancy or virality, but to try to guarantee one you usually have to sacrifice signifcantly on the other. That means that either you can get links & audience, or you can create some conversions, but it is quite hard to do both.

Further, popularity on such networks tends to fade quickly (unless you keep going back to the well). But at any point in time even newer networks can decide to change how they feature you & cut out whoever they want to, and the more often you keep going back to the same network the more beholden you become to it. Invariably all these social networks that start off as being somewhat open close down & control the ecosystem to boost monetization as growth slows.

Signal Creation vs Amplification

It is easy to point to success like Double Fine & Ouya as proof of the power of some of these networks, but some of that success is due to past success. Anyone who loved playing Psychonauts would love to invest in helping to create another release.

P&G can lay off some of their marketing department because their brands already have such a strong share of voice across all mediums.

And Louis CK can sell a million Dollars worth of his own downloads and a hundred thousand tickets fast because he is already well liked.

Mainstream media writers can offer tips on how to have a dead cat bounce on Twitter. That isn't so hard for the mainstream media to do given how much they dominate Twitter trends & the top shared stories on Facebook. However if you don't have an organic audience channel & a built in cumulative advantage then likely either your story will go nowhere, or even if you share something great what will end up happening is someone else with more distribution will rewrite your story and displace you as the lead source.

Social media can have value as a signal amplification tool, but if you do not already have a separate audience base (via email, RSS, or some other similar channels) then time spent on social would likely be better spent building up some of those other channels first. If you are not building off an organic audience channel then social media promotions will typically fall flat.

Dominate a Small Pond

I don't think I would have done well with SEO if I spent most of my time on the largest sites when I was new to the industry. What helped me along was joining the great crew on SearchGuild who taught me a lot in a short period of time. On smaller sites we can become a bigger fish in a small pond.

The fatal attraction with large sites is that the audience is large, but it is largely inaccessible. The largest sites are the most appealing to the least interesting people. Or, put another way, we are most alike where we are the most vulgar & the most unique where we are the most refined. This is why even when we are on the large sites we typically pay far more attention to what our friends say or do than the ads on those platforms that take thousands of impressions to generate a single click.

There is nothing wrong with spending some time on social sites for fun, but if it becomes the bulk of your publishing time & effort you are probably contributing far more than you get back. Especially when you consider that a lot of the deep insights & continuations of stories that once happened on blogs has fell by the wayside for quick temporary Tweets that disappear into nothingness. Many companies have mistakenly abandoned blogging & will have to experience the pain of starting over when some of these networks go away to appreciate the depth of the error.

Why Marketers Promote Social Media

Addiction to "the New"

If you promote things that are new that buys further coverage because you are seen as being innovative.

Twitter allowed spam & had few people employed fight it. Why? More "users" equates to a higher growth rate, which equates to a higher market valuation on subsiquent investment rounds. Twitter stated that in 2009, 11% of their tweets were spam.

During a social media ponzi bubble a whitepaper about Twitter of Facebook has sizzle because it allows you to leach off the story of that broader platform. And so long as those companies are raising money or trying to go public they want to show the maximum growth possible, so they are unlikely to crack down on forms of marketing manipulation that help growth their platform size and valuation. After they are public though & growth has slowed their approach toward controlling their platform will become much more adversarial.

Google has been public for nearly a decade now & if you speak in the language of SEO that is a term that has already been well defined through the dominant market player.

A Desire to be Seen as a Broader Service

If you are only seen as being about "SEO" then anytime Google forces drastic changes onto the market you are seen as being of limited value & thus at great risk of being washed away. This is even more risky if you are leveraging up and trying to raise funding. But if you claim to be more generalist it allows the frog to turn into a prince, as you have more "growth" opportunities in the near future.

Give it a Different Name

A lot of people try to slag off SEO for self-promotion & then say "don't do spam like the SEOs, instead do x."

And if you read off the list of items that are represented in the "x" invariably it reads like an SEO checklist.

So why do people try to redefine SEO? A number of reasons:

  • if they can create a new term that they "own" then anyone who shares it is building the value of their company
  • they can use polarizing marketing to capture attention & then differentiate themselves from what they actually do by claiming to be doing something else
  • some of the most egregious SEO spammers (eg: Jason Calacanis) never could have got away with running their projects as they were without first distancing themselves from the SEO market

The MLM Factor

In most MLM schemes step 1 is often "follow us" with step 2 being "spread our message" (or, feed us your young, get your friends to hate you, sell your soul, etc.)

This same factor is baked into social media services. Rather than going directly to money though it uses attention as an intermediary.

I am not saying that asking people to follow you is necessarily bad, but if you tell people that social media will change the world and that they should follow you for tips then of course that is a great way to get a bunch of desperate, ignorant & shameless newbs to syndicate your spin. If those people are re-defining old school SEO techniques using a new vernacular they are both the customer (buying into the re-marketing of old concepts) and the product (evangelist spreading false gospel & generating social proof of value).

The above message is never stated in the various "correlation analysis" charts that aim to prove the value of social media to SEO.

Given how easy it is to manipulate social media, even if they are not doing well it is easy for someone like Ellory Bennette to sell the image of success.

Noise vs Signal

There are loads of ways to create a core baseline social "signal" on the cheap. Newt Gingrich was called out for having some fake Twitter followers. There are boatloads of services & tools out there targeting all the social networks & free hosts: Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube, Blogspot, Wordpress, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, Reddit, Digg, Pligg, and even Pinterest.

Given how Newt got "called out" for having fake followers, I wouldn't be surprised to see some marketers buying fake followers for other convenient targets to create a story to sell.

Selling a Bag of Smoke

While composing this, a spam email hit my inbox stating the following:

It's a fact: more people find out about your business on Facebook or Twitter than on search engines. Making these sites work maybe tricky for you, but it s business as usual for us. Let us improve your visibility and enhance your image. It s part of our complete Internet Marketing package. We ll be more than your friends --- we ll be your partners."

Social metrics are easily gamed. If you just want numbers not only are they sold by the social networks as ad units, but they can be had in bulk on sites like Fiverr.

Probably the best comment I have ever read about the "bag of smoke" concept was from Will Spencer:

SEO's like to sell social signals as ranking factors because social media marketing is an easy product to deliver while collecting good profit margins.

The fact that it doesn't work... doesn't seem to bother those people.

The "good guys" in the SEO business aren't the people who parrot Google's lies to a wider audience; the "good guys" in the SEO business are the guys who make their clients money.

Ignorance of Relevancy

Search engines may put out research about social networks like Twitter, but would Google count Twitter as a primary relevancy signal without owning Twitter? Color me skeptical.

Even more laughable than SEOs selling social media as the key to SEO is their open ignorance of the political nature of various relevancy signals.

  • Does Facebook sell likes? Yes. Why would Google want to subsidize a competing ad network? It isn't hard to notice Google's dislike for Facebook through their very public black PR campaigns.
  • The same sort of "why would I subsidize a competitor" issue is also in place with Twitter. They sell retweets & follows, so why would Google want to subsidize that?
  • Google counts YouTube ad views as organic views, but they own it & they only rolled out universal search *after* they acquired YouTube.

In summary...

CLARITY – Methodology for Picking the Right Agency

Jul 5th


(Image Source – my poorly built logo creator)

In my long career as an Online Marketer, I have had to often pick an agency to partner with or to carry out the different mixes of online marketing, such as SEO, Paid Search, Affiliate marketing, Email Marketing, Analytics, Social Media etc etc. Fact is, I am a rounded marketer who, although spends time on SEO the most, understands and works in most online fields. This means I am often the go to person for brands when they want to pick an agency to work with.

One such day, while in the middle of listening to an agency pitch, I felt quite a bit perplexed. The two pitches I heard were vastly different, and I wasn’t happy with either. The core problem I had with agency pitches was around the following observations:

  • They tend to be too boiler plate. Replace your business with any other and it may feel that it doesn’t matter.
  • They miss the main questions that a business may want the answers for.
  • They miss the opportunity to really sell their USP (Unique Selling Proposition)
  • If they are customised, they lose some of the generic elements necessary
  • They often leave too much room for questions, which can take the process either way.

The above is often true, even if you have issued a clear brief to your agency as to what you would expect to see, or what questions you would want answered. Any agency can follow a brief and answer it, but very few in my opinion see beyond the brief. And as an experienced agency recruiter for brands, I would like to see much more answered within the pitch than I am still seeing.

Many agencies don’t make it CLEAR what they aim to achieve, nor do they try to CLARIFY what the businesses need or want.


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nomad9491/2399208582/

So I formulated the CLARITY model for briefs, which could be a frame work for answering pitches – help you answer your brief, while allowing you to demonstrate much more than the questions at hand. CLARITY, in my opinion, is an agency model that would score very highly but would also form the ethos of an agency environment that is really geared to helping their clients.

At the same time, the model has helped me pick the right agencies over and over again, and as such could be used by in house Digital marketers to form their own judgement sheets.

Although many SEObook readers are SEOs, many are in the agency environment themselves having to pitch, or in house and may have to from time to time help pick an agency. Many are like me, interested in SEO, but involved in much more online and offline marketing. As a result, I felt that sharing my model may help at least a few readers.

Warning: This is a rather long post, and could sound a bit preachy.

Defining CLARITY

The model is a mnemonic that covers the 7 elements below:

  1. Communication
  2. Learning and Development
  3. Access to Support
  4. Respectable and Responsive
  5. Intelligence both in people and processes
  6. Technology and innovation
  7. Yield Based Approach

Communication


Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ventodigrecale/315084105/

When working with any outside agency, the type of communication is vital. The overall tone and approach as well as the individual team members all add to a business’s communication strategy. Some businesses like being overly formal, while others find that formal approaches are annoying and could hinder work. When picking the right agency for you, understanding how they communicate with clients and amongst themselves is extremely important to make sure that the working relationship is a healthy one.

For example, how your agency dresses and behaves in meetings is fairly important – it is a subliminal communication signal. As part of a pitch process I was involved in, one very talented SEO turned up, but was wearing ripped cuff jeans.

The Head of Ecommerce was at the meeting and was not impressed that for such a large pitch, the key person delivering was in scruffy jeans.

Result? They didn’t get the gig because the Head of Ecommerce was distracted by the fact that this person hadn’t bothered to dress appropriately.

My tips to people running a pitch:

  • Find out what the communication standards are for the business – do they favour email over phone, or vice versa?
  • How do the key stakeholders behave, dress or communicate? If they are formal in their communication, you may have to resort to matching their style, or loosen up if they are a team that prefer informal approaches.
  • Keep your presentations clear and concise, and ALWAYS identify your communication strategy, especially things like reporting regularity, formats, availability of account holders, and even down to how you would deal with a crisis situation that requires communication out of hours.
  • When presenting or pitching, make the objectives clear – many a pitch goes a bit haywire if the summary of the presentation or of the overall service isn’t clear.

Learning and Development


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In the digital world, things change daily. And sometimes small changes make big difference – take the latest Penguin Algorithm update from Google. The change in the way Google is treating a majority of low quality links has caught many an agency unprepared to turn around quickly - and to my knowledge a few, if not a majority, have since drafted communication to their clients about the change and what it means for their SEO.

As part of a pitch process, identifying the potential for such large scale impacts on channels is important – but more important is to show that your team is up to the challenge. It is important to indicate that your team is an ever learning, ever developing beast, and it may be worth showing some examples where you have bucked the trend, or foresaw changes and indicate how you managed to save, support or shift your other clients strategies.

For example, knowledge of your discipline isn’t enough – you have to garner some knowledge about your potential clients industry and changes occurring within it, such as legislation.

In one pitch I was part of, we identified that the client was suffering from Voucher Code site abuse – where the voucher code sites would consistently rank for long tails of the business. Interestingly, the client hadn’t picked up on the fact that the reason that they were losing a lot of organic traffic wasn’t because they had had ranking losses – rankings were all fine. The reason they were losing their traffic was because this voucher code site was ranking immediately below the clients sites with a discount offering! Our strategy tackled that by investigating the legislation, both applied and subscribed to within the voucher code industry in the UK, and as a result managed to craft a communication brief, which would enable the client from stopping the abuse.

We won the contract, and the work we did was implemented. In the end we came to an agreement with the site in question and they stopped. Clients SEO traffic and conversions soared.

A good agency has an arsenal of resources at its disposal – indicating these as well as how you constantly add to the armoury is very important – after all, often agency relationships with clients can span years.

Access to Support


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For any business, support is important. For any business with large budgets and complicated marketing campaigns, support is critical. Although most agencies work in a 9am to 5pm daily shift 5 days a week, many brands don’t see themselves that way. Their business online is churning round the clock, 7 days a week.

Which means a crisis, issue or even an opportunity may raise itself at the least possible convenient time. Although in a pitch these sort of issues aren’t expected by most businesses, I often find that if an agency covers it, they tend to get “bonus points” especially if they highlight likely scenarios and how they would respond to them out of hours. Although this point is a subset of communication, it is also important enough as a winning point to be isolated.

One SEO agency I hired for a holiday business proposed that during peak periods of the business refreshing site wide content, (an annual occurrence) they would send one of their content SEOs to sit with the content team to start optimising content as it gets written, and getting it to the publishing team within a very short period of time. Excellent foresight, and was one of the contributing factors to a contract that still runs 5 years on.

On the flip side, another agency pitching an email support platform worth $100,000 in fees a year to them insisted that they would prefer all the communication via email and had a very complicated tracking system that runs through to first line support, then second line and then finally to a specialist if the first two lines couldn’t solve a situation. This scared the client – sometimes you just can’t wait for three layers of conversations before actioning an urgent change - and as a result they weren’t short listed.

Respectable and Responsive


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It sounds obvious that you have to be both respectable and responsive to potential (and current!) clients. However what you as an agency see as being “respectable” may not be necessarily what they feel the definition of the word may be.

Respectable also implies respecting your clients intelligence. One of the key primary things I teach to agencies is that they should research their potential clients carefully. By making your pitch too simplistic may offend their intelligence and could cost you.

Take for example a UK SEO agency that was pitching to a business I was consulting a few years ago. The pitch was about SEO and how they would help the business grow its SEO. Before hand, they had a list of all the attendees, which included my name and the name of the head of Ecommerce (who would at least have a rudimentary knowledge of SEO).

Now if you are pitching to me, you SHOULD know that I know a bit about SEO, if only you bothered to Google my name :)

Yet, in the pitch, the starting slide was an animated slide, which was a web with spiders running up and down it – explaining to us what a search engine bot was and how it crawls the web(!) apart from the fact that the animation was poor (a gif of a spider running up and down the web), they actually assumed that a multi million pound business that they were pitching to:

  • Need to see what a web spider is in a picth presentation
  • Be spoken to as if they were total amateurs

In addition, as I was in the audience I found this actually quite insulting – the fact that they hired me to be in the room meant that they were serious about a decent SEO strategy. The Head of Ecommerce had the same horrified response as I had – did the agency think we were complete idiots?

Needless to say, they lost the pitch in the first round.

Intelligence


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To be perfectly frank, expect a serious pitch to be faced with some serious questions. At the same time, you would be expected to show real intelligence in the way you present and prepare for the meeting.

Displaying intelligence isn’t showing how many clients you have, or sprouting your company’s internal strap lines. It isn’t displaying how many results you have gotten for other clients.

Intelligence is more about:

  • How well you have both, understood and answered the clients brief
  • How well you have actually understood the clients business
  • Demonstrated a working knowledge of the clients business and THEN demonstrated how your activity would help
  • Demonstrated both creative and critical thinking, and looked into trying to future proof campaigns.
  • Indicate that the right people would be working on the right portions of the campaign. Make some of those people part of the brief

The worst case scenario would be that you have a really intelligent hands on SEO prepare your presentation, and then instead either get an account manager or sales person actually present it, without the SEO present to field any questions. Often the result is a disaster – yet this a very common approach. Believe it or not, this has happened to me at least three times. Neither the account manager nor the sales person actually knew any SEO (PPC in one PPC agency pitch). Which meant though their presentation was solid, they ability to field questions intelligently was fairly limited to “We can come back to you on that”.

Technology and Innovation


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In the online world, when data flows (fairly) freely, technology has to be at the forefront to deal with that data, to rationalise, monetise and sanitise it. An agency coming in to pitch within the digital sphere needs to show (to me at least):

  • Usage of relevant tools and technology existent in the market
  • Development plans for new tools / or custom tools
  • An understanding of how technology available can be suited to your campaign

Similarly, an agency that doesn’t innovate is low on my “like” list. I would be willing to spend more time with one that has interesting ideas about innovating, than one that actually just rehashes ideas that exist in the market and brand them as their own.

One agency years ago insisted that they have “market leading” guides on SEO for internal staff - from content strategies to link building. When quizzed what kind of information they would share with the businesses content team for better SEO, we received a document that was clearly well set up, researched and written for the right audience. Sounds great right? Only problem was this was the SEOmoz guide that they simply wrapped up and presented to us. Seeing that I was on one of the top contributors to SEOmoz at that point ( I think I still rank in the top 10) I recognised the document and called them up on it.

Needless to say, I don’t believe they ever repeated that faux pas - and went out and had their own content written.

Similar situations exist when companies tell me of a revolutionary tool A or amazing platform Y - and in most cases they tend to be industry standards that they use and nothing out of the ordinary. Which is fine for a basic pitch – but for a stellar pitch you need to stand out.

Yield Based Approach


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Any campaign you build has to deliver a return. It doesn’t matter what the campaign is, it has to achieve its objectives. Which means if you have to pick an agency, the agency has to demonstrate the capability to not only come up with a plan or strategy that works for you it has to demonstrate that it understands what your businesses KPIs are.

This doesn’t simply mean an uplift in sales, traffic, but a clever demonstration of how the Return On Investment would be aimed at and achieved. If an agency cannot demonstrate a clear understanding of your businesses goals, and does not take the time to understand what the ROI of the specific channel being discussed should be, then they fail in using a yield based approach.

A few years back, an SEO agency pitched to me for a UK Holiday business. They were big on numbers by their own admission, and had a clear demonstration of how much it would cost us to rank for Keywords, and in fact had a clear chart identifying the top level “Category Killer” keywords.

They then went on to demonstrate how one of their current Holiday clients achieved those rankings with their help by spending the same figures that they demonstrated. The top level Keyword was “Holidays”.

2 problems with that.

First, if they already have a client in the space that they are working with to rank for those exact keywords, then I wonder to myself if the end result would become who spends the most to retain those positions. Which in itself is fine, I have no problem with agencies who have clients in the same niches, BUT, at what point does the competition with one client against the other show a negative return? If spend is the limiting factor, I wouldn’t want a competitor in that space to have the same resources as I do in terms of SEO talent, and then be simply beaten by their capability to throw more money at the campaign. Which wouldn’t be a worry, except if the agency was so willing to tell us exactly how much it cost their other client to rank, how can I trust them not to reveal the same data to our competitor?

The second problem with this scenario was they went straight for the proverbial jugular. They want to work on the money keywords (money for them!). A UK Holiday site may gain some sales on the back of ranking for “Holidays”, but I promise you that the conversion rate would be dreadful, and probably in the third decimal percentages.

If I had to pitch that gig, I would have started at the lower rung, moving upwards towards the chain to the category keyword “UK Holidays”. The spend to rank for most those would have equated to the total that the agency wanted as its fees, but the ROI for ranking for the RIGHT keywords would have been much, much higher. And an easier sell.

So the agency failed t understand the business, and as such failed to demonstrate that they could deliver the right ROI for them.

Conclusion…

If you have stuck with me so far, congrats (and thank you!). I am genuinely hoping that agencies that pitch, take something away from this post, and people who are paid to listen to pitches, do as well. I know that these principles have been successful for a large number of agencies when pitching, despite the fact that the agency didn’t realise that they were following a successful model.

The aim isn’t to follow my thoughts flat out, but learn form a person who has been involved I both sides of a pitch process, with a decent success rate in both, picking the right agency, and being picked for a campaign.

Rishi Lakhani is a freelance Online Marketing Consultant working with a number of brands and agencies in the UK, and spends a large portion of his free time on twitter. Follow him at: https://twitter.com/rishil

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