Are You a Master of the Obvious? 5 Easy Tests

I'm reading a book called "In Search Of The Obvious". It makes many references to another book, written in 1916, called "Obvious Adams". The book outlines the simple truth of marketing, which is that the best marketing solutions should be evident. They should be obvious. They should be simple.


But isn't that the deep, distant past? This is the internet age. Everything is different now. We're living in a complicated age, surely!

Not really.

It's not different now because while circumstances change, the human condition remains the same. And those who don't learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat it. Looking at what happened in Vietnam will tell you what will happen in Iraq. There is plenty of advice that stands the test of time, and I think this truth is a great one.

A search for any marketing strategy should be a search for the obvious.

Five Tests Of Obviousness

The book outlines five tests to see if an idea, a strategy, or a solution is obvious.

The Problem, When Solved, Will Be Simple

If an idea is clever, ingenious, or complicated, it's not obvious.

History is full of of simple solutions to complex problems. A search engine, although complex in execution, is a simple solution to a complex problem. You type a topic you're interested in, and the search engine shows you where to find information on that topic. E-mail lets you send messages to other people instantly. A mobile phone lets you call people from anywhere.

Anyone can understand these solutions.

Does It Fit With Human Nature

Will it be accepted by a wide range of people when you tell it to them?

Will your mother understand it? Will you friends? Will the guy behind the counter at the shop? Do you feel comfortable explaining your idea to these people? These people are a cross section of human nature. They will be indicative of the wider community in which your idea will exist.

Because these people won't understand industry conventions and technical jargon, in order to explain it, you'd need to strip your idea down to the basic features and benefits. Does it still work?

Put It On Paper

Write your idea down on paper.

Write it as if you were explaining it to a child. Can you do so in three sentences? When you find the right words to describe your idea, it will sound simple. If it sounds complicated, it's probably not a great idea.

Does It Explode In People's Minds

Do people say "now why didn't we think of that before"?

You've probably had that experience yourself. It's the head-slapping moment. From that moment on, the matter appears settled.

No further talk seems necessary.

Is The Time Right?

Many ideas and plans are obvious, but occur at the wrong time. Ask yourself if the time for this idea has passed? Or is it some way off in the future?

For example, given the existence of Twitter, would you start a blog that pointed out interesting things on the internet? The time for a blog pointing out interesting things on the internet has clearly passed.

Does this all sound too simple for the complicated internet?

A lot of people start with simple ideas and deliberately make them complex. By making ideas complex, they make themselves sound clever. They use complicated charts and diagrams. They use big sounding, empty phrases. Some people certainly buy into that approach. By buying into it, it makes them appear clever, too.

But is that what people really want?

Do you buy goods and services that confuse you?

Isn't the real aim to be self-evident?

Apply These Ideas To The SEO Pitch

So why is SEO so difficult to get across to people? Why aren't there hordes of people knocking down your door to sign up? Do people's eyes glaze over when you tell them what you do?

I think that happens because the language is wrong. SEO hasn't been boiled down to the simple idea.

I recall watching a video a few years back where Jill Whalen addressed a marketing conference of non-SEOs. She was talking about SEO, but I'm not sure the audience were responding all that well, mostly because it was new concept for them.

However, when Jill got to the end of her speech, where she talked about a local dentist who had been about to go broke because he had a lack of patients, and after Jill did her work, she said "and instead of going broke, he had to hire more staff!".

At that point, you could see the the audience just light up. The MC noted it, too, and commented on it. The language resonated. At that point, the idea became simple and obvious.

SEO is really about growing business.

Everyone could relate to that, where they couldn't relate to rankings, links, and keywords or any of the other process elements SEOs often talk about. A lot of SEO pitches, particularly to customers who are new to SEO, focus too much on the "how". However, the "how" is not evident. Rankings, links, keywords...none of that is simple.

The evident thing is that more customers arrive on the site and buy, or sign up for, something.

So, when pitching SEO, try to focus a lot less on the "how", and a lot more on the "why". Structure your offering around improving the customers business. If you can't do that, there is no point doing SEO. SEO, in itself, is not evident.

The business building benefits of SEO certainly are.

Published: May 8, 2009 by A Reader in marketing


May 8, 2009 - 7:20am

I love how you ended this post:

"So, when pitching SEO, try to focus a lot less on the "how", and a lot more on the "why". Structure your offering around improving the customers business. If you can't do that, there is no point doing SEO. SEO, in itself, is not evident."

That paragraph can apply to almost any type of business where the benefits and process is not clearly understood and is even a great thing to keep in mind when writing headlines, outlining customer benefits in sales copy, etc.

Nice job!

May 8, 2009 - 11:58am

It’s the classic case of "benefits vs. features".

Thanks DomainSuperstar for the superb tool you made. Using your tool I have already bought 3 great domains.

Thanks again.

May 8, 2009 - 1:32pm

Getting the pitch right works very well in Adwords as well. If you can't pitch the benefits in two lines of 35 characters then you have a bad advert.

I totally agree with your point about being able to explain your product in simple, accessible language.

May 8, 2009 - 3:38pm

Im not sure if I understand your point about this one Peter, but it reminds me quite a bit of another post from a few days ago by you that I read yesterday...about SEOs not being able to speak to their customers in their language (basic marketing principle..speak to the audience in their language or you might as well speak to them in a foreign language).

So are you mostly trying to get the point across that even though complicated solutions can work just the way simple solutions can work (I know you didnt say this Im just adding this), complicated solutions dont sell. But simple solutions do, because people will actually use them and understand/be able to relate to them? Thus a marketer should find simple, straight forward solutions to peoples' problems?

Reminds me of the whole tech people not understanding business people (goals) and the other way around hehe.

PS: it reminds me of how i was trying to come up with a software / parental control software solution to limit my PC time during exam phase..and after a while realized that a software type of solution will seem cooler, but be a lot less effective than a plug-in timer in a lock-box LOL.

May 8, 2009 - 8:21pm


Try going through the five steps, and see what you come out with.

I think many successful ideas tend to be simple abstractions on what people already do. For example, email is writing a letter. It "replaces" something people already do, and is therefore evident.

Also consider RSS.

The idea would need to be reframed if it is to get wider adoption. RSS means nothing to most people. Feed reader? Huh? However, if I went through the five steps, I might end up describing it as "a free newspaper covering just the topics you're interested in". Not great, but it's a start.

It's not just about the language. It's about finding the essence of things. Look how Acronym Media have done it:

Keyword = Customer. Understand your customers. Speak their language.

That's pretty powerful. And evident. Compare that with how many SEO companies pitch.

And, like, why didn't I think of this:


May 8, 2009 - 11:38pm

Thanks for the thorough explanation Peter :-)

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