Manage Your Reputation

Dec 5th
posted in

How much value do you place on your good reputation?

If we looked at it purely from a financial point of view, our reputations help us get work, make money, and be more influential. On a personal level, a good name is something of which you can be proud. It is something tangible that makes you feel good.

You're Everywhere

As it becomes increasingly easy for people to make their feelings known and published far and wide, many businesses are implementing reputation management strategies to help protect their good name.

This area used to be the domain of big business, who employed teams of PR and legal specialists to nurture, defend and promote established brands. Unlike small business, which didn’t have to worry about what someone on the other side of the country might have said about them as it didn’t affect business in their locality, larger entities were exposed nationally, and often internationally. It was also difficult for an individual to spread their grievance, unless it was picked up by mainstream media.

These days, everything is instant and international. Those with a grievance can be heard far and wide, without the need to get media involved. We hear about problems with brands across the other side of the country, or the world, just as easily as we hear about them in our own regions, or market niches. If someone is getting hammered in the search industry, you and I probably both hear about it, at roughly the same time. And so will everyone else.

Media stories don’t even have to be true, of course. False information travels just as fast, if not faster, than truth. Given the potential, it’s a wonder reputation problems don’t occur more often that they do.

This is why reputation management is becoming increasingly important for smaller firms and individuals. No matter how good you are at what you do, it’s impossible to please everyone all the time, so it’s quite possible someone could damage your good name at some point.

Much of the reputation management area is obvious and common sense, but certainly worth taking time to consider, especially if you haven’t looked at reputation issues up until now. When people search on your name, do they find an accurate representation of who you are and what you’re about? Is the information outdated? Are you seen in the same places as you competition? How does their reputation compare to yours?

Also, some marketers offer reputation monitoring and management as an add-one service to clients so it can be a potential new revenue stream for those offering consultancy services.

The Indelible Nature Of The Internet

In some respects, I’m glad the internet - as we know it - wasn’t around when I was at school. There were far too many regrettable nights that, these days, would be recorded from various angles on smartphones and uploaded to YouTube before anyone can say “that isn’t mine, officer!”

You’ve got to feel sorry for some of the kids today. Kids being kids, they sometimes do stupid things, but these days a record of stupidity is likely to hang around “forever”. Perhaps their grand-kids will get a laugh one day. Perhaps the recruiter won’t.

Something similar could happen to you, or your firm. One careless employee saying the wrong thing and the record could show up in search engines for a long time. If you’re building a brand, whether personal or related to a business, you need to look after it, nurture it, and defend it, if need be. We’ll look at a few practical ways to do so.

On the flip side, of course, the internet can help establish and spread your good reputation very quickly. We’ll also look at ways to push your good reputation.

Modern Media Is A Conversation

People talk.

These days, no matter how big a firm is, they can’t hide behind PR and receptionists. If they don’t want to join the conversation, so be it - it will go on all around them, regardless. If they aren’t part of it, then they risk the conversation being dictated by others.

So a big part of online reputation management is about getting involved in the conversation, and framing it, where possible i.e. have the conversation on your terms.

Be Proactive

Most us haven’t got time to constantly monitor everything that might be said about us or our brands. One of the most cost-effective ways to manage reputation is to get out in front of problems before they arise. If there is enough good things said about you, then the occasional critical voice won’t carry as much weight by comparison.

The first step is to audit your current position. Search on your name and/or brand. What do you see in the top ten? Do the results reflect what you’re about? Is there anything negative showing up? If so, can you respond to it by way of a comment section? This is the exact same information your customers will see, of course, when they look you up.

If you’re not seeing accurate content, you may need to update or publish more appropriate content on your own sites, and those sites that come up in the top ten, where possible. More aggressive SEO approaches involve flooding the SERPs with positive content in an attempt to push down any negative stories below the fold so they are less likely to be seen. This is probably not quite as effective as addressing the underlying issues that caused the negative press in the first place, unless the criticisms were malicious, in which case, game on.

Next, conduct the same set of searches on your competitors. How does their reputation compare? Are they being seen in places you aren't? Are they getting positive press mentions that you could get, too? How does your reputation stack up, relatively speaking?

Listen

You can monitor mentions using services such as Google Alerts, Hootsuite, Tweetdeck, and various other tools. There’s another big list of tools here. Google runs "Me On The Web" as part of the Google Dashboard.

Monitor trends related to your industry. Get involved in fast breaking, popular trends and discussions. Be seen where potential customers would expect to see you. The more other people see you engaged on important issues, in a positive light, the more credibility you’re banking for the future. If you build up a high volume of “good stuff”, any occasional critical voice will likely get lost in the noise, rather than stand out. A lot of reputation management has to do with building positive PR ahead of any negatives that may arise later. You should be everywhere your customers expect to see you.

This is a common tactic used by authors selling on Amazon. They “encourage” good reviews, typically by handing out free review copies to friends, in order to stack the positive review side in their favor. The occasional negative review may hurt them, but not quite as much as if the number of negative reviews match the number of positive reviews. Some of them overdo it, of course, as twenty 5 star reviews, and nothing else, looks somewhat suspicious. When it comes to PR, it's best to be believable!

Engage

Create a policy for engagement, for yourself, and other people who work for you. Keep it simple, and principle based, as principles are easier to remember and apply. For example, a good principle is to post in haste only if what you are saying is positive. If something is negative, pause. Leave it for a few hours. If it still feels right, then post. It’s so easy to post in haste, and then regret it for years afterwards.

Seek feedback often. Ask people how you’re doing, especially if you suspect you've annoyed someone or let them down in some way. If you give people permission to vent where you control the environment it means they are less likely to let off steam somewhere else. It may also highlight potential trouble-spots in your process, that you can fix and thus avoid repeats in future. I’ve run sites where the sales process has occasionally broken down, and had customers complain. It happens. I make a point of letting them vent, giving them more than they originally ordered, and apologizing to them for the problems. Not only does going over-and-above expectations prevent negative press, it has often turned disgruntled customers into advocates. They’ve increased their business, and referred others. Pretty simple, right, but good customer service is all part of the reputation management process.

Figure out who the influential people are in your industry and try and get onside with them. In a crisis, they may well help you out, especially if they see you’re being hard done by. If influential names weigh in on your behalf, this can easily marginalize the person who is being critical.

Security

Secure your stuff. Check out this awful story on Wired:

In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.

Explaining what happened and getting it published on Wired is a pretty good crisis management response, of course. When you look up “Mat Horan”, you find that article. Separate your social media business and personal profiles. Secure your mobile phone. Check that your privacy settings are correct across social media. Simple stuff that goes a long way to protecting your existing reputation.

What To Do If You Do Hit Trouble

We can’t please everyone, all the time.

A critical factor is speed. If you spot trouble, get into the conversation early. This can prevent the problem festering and gathering it’s own momentum. However, before you leap in, make sure you understand the issue. Ask “what do these people want to happen that is not currently happening?”.

Also consider who is saying it. What’s their reach? If it’s just a ranter on noname.blogspot.com, or a troll attempt, it’s probably not worth your time, and engaging trolls is counter-productive. Someone influential, of course, requires kid glove treatment. One common tactic, especially if the situation is escalating beyond your control, is to try and take it offline and reach resolution that way. You can then go back to the online conversation once it has been resolved, rather than having the entire firefight a matter of indelible public record.

It’s illegal for people to defame you, so you could also consider legal action if the problem is bad enough. You could also consider engaging some PR help, particularly if the problem occurs in mainstream media. PR can be a bit hit and miss, but reputable PR professionals tend to have extensive networks of contacts, so may get you seen where it might be difficult for you to do so on your own. There are also dedicated reputation management companies, such as reputation.com, reputationchanger.com, and reputationmanagementagency.com who handle monitoring and public relations functions. NB: Included for illustration purposes. We have no relationship with these firms.

Practical examples of constructive responses to negative criticism can often be seen in the Amazon reviews.

For example, a writer can respond to any reviews made about their book. A good approach to negative statements is to thank the reviewer for taking the time to provide feedback, regardless of what they said, and address the issue raised in a calm, informative manner. Future customers will see this, of course, which provides yet another opportunity to sway their opinion. One great example I’ve seen was when the writer did all of the above AND offered the person providing the negative review an hour of free consulting so the reviewer could get the specific information he felt he was missing! One downside of this strategy, however, might be more copycat negative reviews aimed at getting the reviewer free consulting!

The same principle applies to any negative comment in other contexts. When a reader sees your reply, they get editorial balance that would otherwise be missing.

It’s obvious, yet important, stuff. If you’ve got examples of how you’ve handled reputation issues in the past, or your ideas on how best to manage reputation going forward, please add them to the comments to help others.

I’m sure they’ll remember you for it :)

Engagement Marketing 101

Nov 13th

Getting traffic to a site is one thing. How do we best engage visitors once they arrive?

Since Update Penquin/Panda, engagement metrics have become more important. In order for our sites to rank well, we need to avoid the bounce - the immediate click-back - or we’re likely to experience drops in ranking. We need to pull visitors deeper into our site. We need more genuine engagement.

Even if engagement metrics had no impact on rankings, optimizing for engagement is always going to be beneficial. The more engaged our audience, the more influence we’re likely to have, and we derive the benefits that flow from it.

Here are a few ideas on visitor engagement, and how to optimize for it.

Two-Way

When visitors have so many options, it’s difficult to engage them for long. We can’t accommodate every need on one site. It’s certainly impossible to accommodate every need within one or two clicks. So, to make the most of every opportunity, we should be optimizing engagement factors.

One problem with content-based approaches is that they tend to be top-down. The visitor is assumed to be a somewhat passive recipient of published information. However, at the heart of engagement is a two-way conversation. In order to foster engagement, we must encourage participation, as opposed to simply deliver content.

The web is moving from an information age to a relationship age. Social media demonstrates that information is intersecting in new ways. Information is being sliced, diced, repurposed, remixed and redelivered, turning “recipients” into producers. The act of consumption changes the information, and often creates new information. Conversation, as discussed in the Cluetrain Manifesto, is crucial in this new economy.

“Historically, the authors state, the marketplace was a location where people gathered and talked to each other: they would discuss available products, price, reputation and in doing so connect with others (theses 2–5.) The authors then assert that the internet is providing a means for anyone connected to the internet to re-enter such a virtual marketplace and once again achieve such a level of communication between people. This, prior to the internet, had not been available in the age of mass media (thesis 6.)”

And that conversation will largely be decided by our visitors. It certainly reshapes marketing. To give an offline example, what’s the problem with marketing television and radio? We watch or listen to the content, but the marketing keeps jumping in, which is intrusive and disruptive.

Engagement Marketing is the opposite. The marketer hangs back and engages with the visitor of and when they need it. Look for ways the visitor can initiate and direct the engagement.

Benchmark/Define Success Metrics

How do we best measure engagement?

We start with a benchmark, which is the current level of engagement. We could look at the engagement link in Google Analytics. Typical measurements include time on site, pages per visit, inbound links, mentions on twitter, return visits, new users per date range, categories of interest, and page depth.

All good. If those metrics increase, it certainly feels like we’re being more engaging. One example might be to examine visitor flow through the site. If we can identify bottlenecks - the point where engagement breaks down - then we can adjust our approach at this point to clear the bottleneck.

But we need to be sure this engagement benefits us. Are these metrics aligned with our business goals? People might well be spending a lot of time on our site, but that might be because they’re lost. We might be getting a lot of mentions on Facebook and Twitter, but are these people actually buying anything? Mentions on Twitter & Facebook might be great metrics for a brand strategy, but not so great for conversion strategy, at least, not in the short term, and not in isolation.

Engagement must translate, and be aligned with, business goals. When choosing what engagement metrics to measure, ask yourself how this type of engagement helps achieve your goals. Also, are there other types of engagement we could foster to support own goals?

Practical Lessons In Engagement

This video is a little sales pitch-y, but contains some interesting lessons on optimizing engagement.

Optimizer, Dan Siroker, who once worked for Google before moving onto the Obama campaign talks about how they used metrics to increase engagement. Both Obama campaigns have demonstrated effective use of digital engagement and measurement to help produce a desired election result. The techniques involve establishing a baseline i.e. seeing what they do already and increasing performance by making tweaks and adjustments, and measuring the result.

He found that, generally speaking, these rules apply when optimizing for engagament:

Start By Defining Success: How will you know if your engagement optimization has worked? Decide on a few, quantifiable measures based around a visitor taking a desirable action. Link those actions to business return.

Less Is More - if we reduce choice, people are more likely to engage. In this example, they reduced the fields people needed to fill in to only those actually required, rather than all the information that may be desirable. Look for ways you can streamline and thus boost engagement.

Words Matter - focus on your call to action. Calls to action tend to work best when you tell the visitor exactly what they have to do. Be explicit. In this example, they compared the phrase “Free trial” vs “Try It Free”. The latter resulted in 14.6% improvement. This was most likely because it was an explicit call to action. However, the “why” doesn’t really matter. The point is to measure one thing against another and see what actually works.

Fail Fast And fail cheap!. It’s all about being iterative. Being flexible. Trying things out. The underlying presumption is that a lot of things we do aren’t going to work, no matter how logical and rational they seem to be when we devise them.

So, rather than be afraid to make a change, as this may result in failure, grasp the opportunity to make a change and be sure to “fail fast”. If something is not working out, cut it quickly, and try something else, until it does work. If it hurts, dump it quick and move on.

Start Today It’s easy to talk about being engaging, but what really matters is taking action to be more engaging. If there’s one thing you can do today to make your site more engaging, what would it be? Go do that. Test it. And then do something else tomorrow :)

In the video, Dan talks mostly about process changes. Another area is, of course, web design.
This article talks about the influence of design on engagement, based on opinion on what design is preferable to another.

If we go back to the rules of engagement, the important thing to do is to test. Test one design against each other to see which is more engaging based on desired visitor action. Ensure the engagement measurement is aligned with a business goal i.e. “we want more 50% orders via our web site”.

Social Media Engagement?

Do Blogs, Twitter and Facebook help you meet your engagement goals?

Is anyone reading our posts? If they do, what do they do next? Anything? Many people are very busy in this space, but generate little or no return on investment. When it comes to engagement, it’s one thing to measure activity, quite another to measure if that activity actually means something.

Part of the problem is not focusing on ROI. Determine your business goals, then shape your social media approach to bring about these goals. One example might be “Twitter traffic makes a donation to our cause”. We’d measure the Twitter traffic, and link it to a successful donation.

This is a good example of where metrics can be deceptive. If we measured Twitter traffic, and time on site, and depth of their activity on-site, that might look great in terms of engagement, but if it doesn’t serve a business purpose, then why are we doing it? If people spend more time on site, is that good? Well, not if we want them to sign up, but they didn’t

Engagement Media & Strategy

There is no substitute for relevance. Relevance is the first, essential step. The next step is pull the visitor in, get them contributing, and get them coming back.

Alan Moore, Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, puts it well:

Engagement marketing is “premised upon: transparency - interactivity - immediacy - facilitation - engagement - co-creation - collaboration - experience and trust, these words define the migration from mass media to social media. The explosion of: Myspace, YouTube, Second Life and other MMORPG's, Citizen Journalism, Wicki's and Swicki's, TV formats like Pop Idol, or Jamies School Dinners, Blogs, social search, The Guinness Visitor Centre in Dublin or the Eden project in Cornwall UK, mobile games like Superstable or Twins, or, new business platforms like Spreadshirt.com all demonstrate a new socio-economic model, where engagement sits at the epicentre

In order for the following media examples and strategies to work well, they should have as many of these qualities - transparency - interactivity - immediacy - facilitation - engagement - co-creation - collaboration - experience and trust - as possible. No doubt you've experienced the frustration of heavily moderated and delayed visitor comments on mainstream media acticles. They rob the interaction of immediacy and trust, so it’s no wonder their business model is dying in the face of relatively open and immediate citizen media and reporting.

A quality content strategy is likely to keep people reading, bookmarking, and coming back. Quality is, of course, relative. Compare your content with that of your opponents. Obviously, your stuff needs to be better. Even if people do click away, they may well return if they look at your competitors and find their quality lacking.

Video and audio are linear, so people, once engaged, are likely to engage as long as the media lasts. Likewise, webcasts engage people in the same way, with the added bonus that visitors can interact, if they wish. If increasing time on site aligns with your business goals, then video and audio might be good media to try.

People love giving their opinion. Look for ways to allow them to do so. Blog comments, obviously. Forums. Encouraging people to Tweet or post to their favored social media channel. Implement chat applications, where appropriate, to seek direct feedback. Amazon’s value is considerably increased by their review system - by giving their customers a voice, whether their opinion is positive or negative.

Use mailing lists. These are especially useful for up sells and cross sells post-purchase. Up-sells are when you encourage the customer to buy something more expensive. Cross-selling is when we sell the existing customer an additional item. I receive special discounts from a clothing retailer I buy from on a regular basis, based on my previous buying history. This retains engagement after I've left the site, and because it's relevant and beneficial, it doesn't feel intrusive. It’s considerably more expensive to get a new customer, rather than look after those customers you’ve got, so look for ways to pass on that value to existing customers. They are likely to be highly receptive and willing to engage, as you’ve already convinced them once.

Brand. A huge topic, but let’s take a look at brand in terms of engagement. A brand is an experience. We associate feelings and thoughts with a brand. Apple’s brand is as much about technology as it is about fashion, desirability and identity. Apple creates engagement on a number of levels, but perhaps the most effective is that you become a “member of a club” when you buy an Apple product. The sense of belonging, and defending and asserting your purchase in the cleverly constructed “Apple vs everything else” debate creates a deep level of engagement.

Try to foster a sense of community. It runs very deep in the human psyche. We used to get a sense of community by geographic location. but now our sense of community is largely defined by the tribes to which we belong.

Why Does Business Talk That Way?

Nov 1st
posted in

It goes like this.

Our Mission is to provide the best SEO services in the world. We nurture win-win scenarios to create enduring value for our customers. We were voted top SEO agency in Texas and voted the best place to work. We value our staff - we want people to be the best we can be, so as we can maintain our preeminent position in the search industry

Place gun to my head. Pull trigger.

How many times have you come across corporate-speak and thought “who are these people trying to kid”? Yet, when many business people sit down to write, that is the sort of thing they invariably come up with.

Why?

Because they are business people. They are talking about business. That is how business sounds.

Well, it’s how they think business should sound, because that’s the way it has always sounded - a monotone drone of description, chest puffed out. These people are stuck in the business-speak echo chamber.

No one sounds like business-speak in real life. If you ask someone how their job is going, a lot of them will invariably say “it sucks”, "too busy", "it's okay". These same people might work for the firm that has says they were nominated “best place to work”. The image and the reality don't match. At best, people will ignore business-speak. No one really believes it.

There are better ways to communicate.

Truth

A lot of business-speak fails to communicate because it isn't rooted in truth.

I once worked at a Telecommunications Company. The marketing team was having a meeting about a new brochure and came up with the slogan - I am not making this up - "(Company Name) - first in service!". Once I stopped wondering how any of these people ever managed to land a job in Marketing, I asked how we knew we were "first in service"? It seemed a reasonable question, but I may as well have asked the Pope if he really believed in God.

Apparently, it was self-evident we were first in service! There was no basis of truth in it, of course. Just an empty slogan, meaning nothing. No measurement. It was a phrase that "sounded positive!"

I doubt any customers believed it, especially those waiting in call queues.

Do you notice how some small companies try to appear large? They list multiple offices, when in, reality they consist of two guys who have a call forwarding service. I’m not quite sure why a company would pretend to be any bigger than it actually is, because as soon as they get a customer, they are going to get found out. The feeling they’ll likely leave with that customer is that they are fundamentally dishonest.

Which is a strange approach to take.

Many customers consider small to be an advantage. Small can mean you are more connected with your customers as there is no barrier between you and the customer. They can talk directly to you. They can email you. They can see you Twittering. Many customers love that. Big companies have “policies”. They have call centers. They have barriers to entry. It’s no wonder they talk in business-speak. It’s just another means to keep people at a distance.

Small companies sometimes try to appear big because they think they need to be big in order to attract big companies as clients. This is sometimes true, but mostly false. It is true that big companies often like to deal with other big companies, mostly so they can successfully sue them if they stuff up. It is false because smart big companies will know a great idea when they hear one, and size simply won’t be a consideration so long as the small company has got something the big company wants.

For example, I mentioned I’d been reading “The Pumpkin Plan” recently. There is a story about a tiny two person company. They came up with a new way of marketing pharmaceuticals.

One major problem many pharmaceutical companies face is that they need to change their marketing approach in different regions, even though they are marketing the exact same product.

In some areas, they have to market based on price (Los Angeles). In other markets they need to influence the cardiologists (Boston). In other areas they must talk directly to African-American patients (Atlanta). Exact same product, different marketing strategy for each city. Get the strategy wrong, and they waste a lot of money and lose market share.

Two guys came up with a way to crunch the numbers that tell pharmaceutical companies exactly what the biggest driver of performance is in each territory.

Through a network of colleagues, they managed to land a meeting with a pharmaceutical company. Not just any meeting - they go straight to the top floor, and talk to the Chairman Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceuticals. They barely get five slides into their presentation when the Chairman stops them to call in his VP of marketing. They both love the idea! This solves a big problem for Johnson and Johnson. The result is that this two person company lands 500K worth of business on the spot, $4m worth of business in the first two years, and $14.2m by year four. They expand, of course.

So, they were two guys pitching to one the biggest pharmaceutical businesses in the world. They landed millions of dollars worth of business because Johnson and Johnson like their idea. They didn’t need to convince Johnson and Johnson they were anything more than two guys with a good idea. It didn't require any business-speak about mission statements, just a focus on finding and solving a real problem.

Tell A True Story About You (And Them)

If you’re ever tempted to write business-speak, try telling a story instead. Turn your pitches into stories. Turn your proposal into stories. Turn your presentations into stories. Make them true stories. Tell them in your authentic voice. People love to be told a story as stories are both familiar and revealing. A string of facts is never going to have the same impact. Business-speak will invariably leave an audience focused on their smartphones.

A story can be about how you solved a problem in the past. A problem just like the one your prospective clients are having. What was the problem? Why was it painful? What did you do to solve it? What was the result?

Easy and memorable. You can structure almost anything as a story. Stories move from the status quo, straight into a crisis (business problem), then the crisis is resolved, and a new status quo is reached. Start with a problem. Explain why it is painful. Bring in the hero - you - and tell them what you did to solve the problem. Then tell them the result - the new status quo.

Are you more likely to recall the text of my opening paragraph, or the story about the two guys pitching to Johnson and Johnson?

Stories can be so much more effective than business-speak.

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Say No To Opportunities & Clients

Oct 29th
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What are you best at?

If you happen to be Google, you’re pretty good at search. And infrastructure. It remains to be seen if you’re any good at social media. It’s fair to say you weren’t much good at Answers, Catalog search, Page Creators, Audio Ads, Wave-ing and Buzz-ing.

The Google example demonstrates that no one can be good at everything, even if they do hire a lot of smart people and have billions in the bank. People, like companies, are good at doing some things, and are okay, or poor, at everything else. Not because they can’t do other things, but because they don't have the time, inclination or disposition.

This truth has led to specialization. Individuals specialize. Companies specialize. Countries specialize. In economics, this is the principle of comparative advantage and it is the basis of trade. We do the things we’re good at, and buy in the things we’re not so good at, or don’t want to do.

We Can’t Be Good At Everything

Like Google, we can’t be good at everything.

Many small businesses make the mistake of trying to do everything, mainly due to lack of resources. However, the opportunity cost of trying to do everything can mean they end up being not very good at doing any one thing. This approach can make them uncompetitive.

Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

Like many web professionals, I can do some coding. Some web design. A bit of this. A bit of that. But I know there are people who are way better at those things that I am, so I let them do it. If I focus on what I’m good at, then I can make money doing that, and buy in the skills I need.

There are many benefits to specialization. For starters, it’s much easier to build a reputation or brand. Who is the go-to guy for Search Engine News? Many people would answer Danny Sullivan. Who is the go-to guy for search patents? That would be Bill.

Another advantage is that specialization leads to omptimized and more efficient processes, and therefore lower costs. The specialist can optimize and improve their approach to a niche activity in a way a generalist seldom can because their focus means they are more likely to see the details.

Most of us occupy very crowded marketplaces, which makes it difficult to stand out as a generalist. Brands, and reputations, can get confused and diluted if businesses spread themselves over multiple service areas. Virgin gets away with it - mainly because of the brand that is Richard Branson - but they are an exception, not the rule.

Not that this article is about the merits of specialization vs being a generalist. More a case of optimizing a business to focus on those areas that are most lucrative, and literally weeding out everything else.

Weeding Out Clients

A lot of companies, like a lot of people, live paycheck to paycheck. They don’t want to turn down any business, because the more clients, the better, right? The more opportunities, the better?

Not all clients are equal. Not all opportunities are a good fit. A client who costs a lot to service, who doesn’t pay their bills on time, who makes life difficult for you is probably not a client worth having. Sure, they might help keep us going to the next paycheck, but this is not an optimal way to run a sustainable business long term. Such clients present an opportunity cost i.e. we could be working with better clients, be making better money, and honing our service around mutual benefit.

For this reason, many companies make a habit of firing clients, or never take them on in the first place.

For example, last year, I received a letter from my accountant. She advised me they were reviewing their business and letting a lot of their clients go, although they were still happy to work with me, and asked that I have a chat with them if I had any concerns.

I did have a chat with them, mainly to confirm my suspicions.

They were deliberately getting rid of 50% of their clients. They had figured out who their top clients were i.e. the clients who took them the least time to service because their books were in order, and they eliminated the rest i.e. those clients whos books were a mess and were generally a pain to deal with. They downsized their business, reduced overhead and now tell me they are making more money than they previously were due to their optimized cost structure. They also appear to be playing a lot more golf!

They optimized their business, became more profitable, and have a lot more time because they made a point of figuring out the core of their business, and saying “no” to everything else.

Say No

Saying no can be very powerful. Prospective clients seem to respect this more, not less. There is something very appealing about a service that is exclusive and beyond reach. It signals a level of confidence that can be attractive.

Exclusive positioning is not just done for the sake of it. It’s a way to filter clients in order to find a good fit, which is especially important for small companies, as they have less resources available to carry bad risks. If we can figure out a client need that we know we can service well (specialization), with sufficient margins for us to be enthusiastic, and the client gets the value they were looking for, then everyone wins.

Let’s say running a PPC bid management service earns an internet marketing company the most money with the least effort. Let’s say they also do web design, but this is a lot more work (read: higher cost to service), and the margins are lower.

Would this company be better off saying “no” to new web design business? Quite possibly. They could dedicate more time to PPC, their PPC processes would get more refined through increased specialization, and they would likely be better placed to compete in the PPC space as their brand and attention becomes more focused. They could let go of the web designer, thus reducing overhead.

Granted, there are many factors to consider, but the question is this: are some areas of your business being serviced only because you can? Or does it make sense to focus on the areas where there is best fit? i.e. better margins, lower costs, most productive relationships - even if that means letting some clients, and even some staff, go?

Could we get better at saying "no"?

Business Lessons From Pumpkin Hackers

Oct 19th
posted in

Working nine to five can suck.

You might be working for a boss who is an idiot. You know he makes stupid decisions. When he's off making yet another stupid decision, it's you left doing all the work. As for job security - that's a joke these days. He can fire you on a whim.

So why not cut out the weak link? Why not go into business for yourself?

The reality, of course, is that starting a business isn't as easy as saying it. You'll likely work longer hours, for less money, and there are no guarantees. While your friends are looking forward to the weekend, you might not see a weekend for a while. Most small businesses fail in their first five years, taking dreams and savings along with them.

Everything has a downside.

However, many businesses not only survive, they prosper. They make their founders wealthy. Even if they don't make fortunes, they can provide lifestyle benefits that are near impossible to achieve with a regular job. There's a lot to be said for being the master of your own destiny.

To achieve that, it's best to start with some good advice.

Makin’ Mistakes

I've been running my own small business for a decade now. Whilst it's been rewarding, and I achieved the goals I set for myself, there has also been a fair few missed opportunities and inevitable wrong turns. I jumped in blind, and like many in the search marketing industry, pretty much made it up as I went along.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But I wished I had understood a few fundamental truths first. I wished someone had imparted some profound wisdom, and I wished I had been smart enough to listen. Come to think of it - they did, and I wasn't.

Such is life.

I’m in the process of setting new goals for the next few years. I'm restructuring. So I decided to reflect on the past, examine the good and the bad, and try to do more of the former, and less of the latter.

One of the problems I identified was that I was spreading myself way too thin over many projects. I have a *lot* of sites. I have domains I’d even forgotten I owned. I have domain names I keep renewing, vowing to do something with one day, yet never getting around to it.

In short, I was growing an awful lot of small pumpkins.

Getting The Fundamentals Right

I’ve decided to ditch almost all of what I have been doing in the past, and focus on a very narrow range of activities, one of which is working with Aaron on SEOBook.

One book I really wish I'd read when I was starting out - had it been available, which it wasn’t - is called "The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy To Grow A Remarkable Business". I'd like to share the central theme of the book with you, because I think it's a great lesson if you're thinking of starting a business, or, like me, optimizing an existing one.

It’s the lesson I wished I’d understood when I started. I certainly hope it’s of help to someone else :)

If You Want To Prosper, Learn To Grow Pumpkins

There are geek farmers who obsess about growing huge pumpkins. They are the hackers of the vegetable world. In order to grow a huge pumpkin - weighing half a ton or more - you can’t just throw seeds on the ground. You can’t grow a whole lot of pumpkins and hope one of them turns out to be huge.

You’ve got to follow a process.

And here it is:

  • Step One: Plant promising seeds
  • Step Two: Water, water, water
  • Step Three: As they grow, routinely remove all of the diseased or damaged pumpkins
  • Step Four: Weed like a mad dog. Not a single green leaf or root permitted if it isn’t a pumpkin plant
  • Step Five: When they grow larger, identify the stronger faster growing pumpkins. Then, remove all the less promising pumpkins. Repeat until you have one pumpkin on each vine.
  • Step Six: Focus all of your attention on the big pumpkin. Nurture it around the clock like a baby and guard it like you would your first Mustang convertible
  • Step Seven: Watch it grow. In the last days of the season this will happen so fast you can actually see it happen

What’s this got to do with business? It’s a process for growing not just pumpkins, but businesses. Let's apply it:

  • Step One: Identify and leverage your biggest natural strengths
  • Step Two: Sell, Sell, Sell
  • Step Three: As your business grows, fire all your small time, rotten clients
  • Step Four: Never, ever let distractions - often labelled as new opportunities - take hold. Weed them out fast.
  • Step Five: Identify your top clients and remove the rest of the less promising clients
  • Step Six: Focus all your attention on your top clients. Nurture and protect them. Find out what they want more than anything and if its in alignment with what you do best, give it to them. Then, replicate the same service or product for as many of the same types of top client as possible
  • Step Seven: Watch your company grow to a giant size

In essence, it’s about focusing on those things you do best. It’s about focusing on your very best customers, and ditching the rest. It’s about creating your own niche by identifying and solving the problems that no one else does.

None of this is new, of course. There are plenty of business advice books that say similar things. However, this is one of those great little stories I wish I had internalized earlier. Rather than grow a lot of small pumpkins, focus on growing those that matter.

Given recent changes at Google, I dare say a lot of SEOs - particularly those who run their own small sites - may be rethinking their approach. Unfortunately, the small guy is being squeezed and the rewards, like in most endevours, are increasingly flowing to large operations. Search conferences, which used to be the domain of the lone-wolf affiliate guy and mom and pop businesses are now jammed full of corporates and their staff. The entire landscape is shifting. New approaches are required, not just in terms of tactics, but in the underlying fundamentals.

It would be interesting to hear your lessons in business. What are the things you know now that you wished someone had told you when you started? Please share them in the comments.

Next Generation SEO

Oct 9th
posted in

There is a good thread on Webmaster World entitled “Next Generation SEO”. Many webmasters hit hard by the uncertainty created by Panda and Penguin are wondering what approaches might work best in the future.

Here at SEOBook, we’ve long advocated the approach of grounding SEO within a solid marketing-based strategy, so we post frequently on this theme. But this is not to say the technical side - algorithm gaming - no longer works, because it most certainly does.

Let’s take a look at both approaches, and how they can be fused.

Rationale Of SEO

The rationale of search engine optimization is simple. If we can work out what factors the search engine algorithms favor, we can do more of it. Our reward will be a high ranking, meaning more people can find us, which results in more traffic.

In theory, the incentive of the search engine and that of the SEO should be aligned. The SEO works out exactly what the search engine wants, and hands it to them on a plate.

The problem is reality.

Search engines, in reality, aren’t near as clever as those running them sometimes make out. They are susceptible to gaming. Sergey Brin, a few years back, even went so far as to suggest “there is no spam, only bad algorithms”. The existence of a webspam team appears to indicate the algorithms still need plenty of work.

There are other problems in terms of incentives. The search engines make their money not by the relevance of the search results, but by the relevance of the advertising. Unless competition is finely balanced between search engines - which it hasn’t been for many years now - the search results need only be “good enough”. Does a search engine really want the searcher finding the most relevant content in the main search results? The business case would demand something a little more subtle, which is not good news for webmasters who rely on gaming the algorithms.

Secondly, a search engine would prefer the money being spent on SEO was going into PPC. If it is considerably cheaper to game the algorithm than run PPC, then few people would bother with PPC. In this respect, SEOs are a competitive threat to the search engines advertising business, yet the incentive for the webmaster is to minimize marketing spend. The search engines, therefore, would have an incentive to drive up the cost of SEO.

Gaming The Algorithm

Given search engine algorithms aren’t yet as clever as those who run would like them to be, the search engines engage in a mixture of algorithm adjustments and FUD in order to counter the effectiveness of search engine optimization. Lately, they have been ramping up activity in both areas, which suggests to me that they see “enthusiastic” search engine optimization as a significant problem.

SEO is a significant problem because it works.

The minute something starts to work a little too well, and the knowledge of how to do it becomes a little too widespread, the search engines have typically jumped in to reset the game. This tends to affect the “low-hanging fruit techniques” i.e. anything that is cheap to do, widely known, and therefore widely practiced.

Take link building. It’s a well known fact that links will result in higher rankings. Google recently jumped into this area, with a mix of adjustments and FUD, to scare off those who buy links. We have the now ridiculous scenario whereby webmasters are paying to have links removed. I can imagine the Google “web quality” team in fits of laughter. Meanwhile, a cottage industry has sprung up in response i.e. people demanding money to delink.

Many of the links webmasters are removing aren't causing the problem.

Link buying still works. Webmasters just need to stay away from the most blatant “low hanging fruit techniques”, such as identical anchor text and obvious paid link networks. At SEOBook, we’ve made side-by-side comparisons of sites that were harmed by their links, and those that weren’t, yet there are often only minor differences in their link graphs. Paid links aren't the problem. Failing to mix it up is the problem.

Search engine optimization is also about content, and the evidence doesn’t suggest that having a lot of content is a negative. It depends where content sits. If the domain has a strong link structure, then the content can be....less than stellar. If your site lacks a stellar link graph, then it becomes more important to have engaging content i.e. fewer immediate click-backs

Moving Forward

The problem with algorithmic-centric approaches is that when the algorithm shifts, so too does the approach. This is fine for people who like chasing the algorithms. It works less well for those who don’t have a lot of time and money to spend doing so, or have less scope to radically change approach.

“Next generation SEO” is essentially “marketing”, whilst keeping the search engines firmly in mind. It's what good SEO has always been about, it's just that some in the industry have lost focus and become obsessed with traffic for its own sake.

It’s about looking at the underlying business to find problems and opportunities. It’s about focusing on the needs of the visitor to help ensure higher conversion rates. This means optimizing for usability, conversion, and relevance.

It’s about building links for traffic, juice and awareness. It’s about establishing networks, particularly in the social space, as we have to go where the people hang out. It means paying attention to the rise of mobile usage. It means paying attention to verticals, such as Amazon. There is evidence to suggest people are moving away from search engines, or not using them quite as much.

In short, SEO will become more like a pay-per-click approach, without paying per click.

Mix And Match

This is not to say you need to do any of the above. You can still do well in SEO by publishing pages and pointing links at them. However, there are many aspects that can be optimized. If nothing else, optimizing a web business can be more fun, and more prosperous, than chasing Google’s near constant algorithm updates in pursuit of raw traffic.

SEO will be around for many years yet. Whilst search engines are a conduit for traffic, then there will be people doing SEO. It’s fair to say the barrier to entry has been raised, so it’s now more difficult and therefore costly to undertake SEO. This flushes out some competitors, however it is rarely those with holistic marketing strategies that get flushed.

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
posted in

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
posted in

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

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