The Massive Ranking Factor Too Many SEOs are Ignoring – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

Despite Google’s ambiguity about how it’s used in the algorithm, we’ve seen evidence time and again that there’s a giant ranking factor that SEOs just aren’t optimizing for. In today’s very special Whitebeard Friday, Rand (or Randa Claus) shows us how to fill in this important gap in our work.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!

Video transcription

Ho, ho, ho. Howdy, Moz boys and girls, and welcome to another special Christmas edition of Whitebeard Friday. I’m your host Randa Claus. (pause) I just can’t keep making fun of Santa like this. It’s just terrible.

I am very thrilled to have all of you with us for the holidays and for this special edition of Whitebeard Friday. We actually have some really important, juicy, meaty SEO material. Hopefully, my beard won’t get too much in the way of that. I feel like I have the same mustache. It’s just whiter this week.

I want to talk about this big ranking factor that a lot of SEO practitioners and experts are almost ignoring. By ignoring, I don’t mean to say we don’t know it exists. We just aren’t optimizing it yet.

That factor is engagement. I’m not just talking about onsite engagement. I’m talking about overall web engagement with your site and your brand. That can manifest in a bunch of different ways. A branded search is certainly one manifestation of that. Direct navigation, so lots of people going directly to your website, lots of people typing in searches for clearly your brand. They want to go just to your website. Time on site and browse rate, we’ve seen a bunch of elements around this. Pogo-sticking, which we’ve talked about on Whiteboard Friday previously. Traffic referrals, meaning traffic you’re sending out to the rest of the web. Google can see this. They have Chrome. They have Android. They have Google Analytics. They have all sorts of plugins. They have the web’s biggest advertising network. They can see all of this stuff. Then, finally, amplification in the forms of press and PR and word of mouth, kind of the non-link forms of amplification, which could even encompass social media.

So what is our evidence that these things are real factors in the search ranking algorithms? Well, unfortunately, unlike the early days of links when this was more directly observable and when the search engines were a little more open about this, they’ve been pretty quiet about engagement. They all talk about it in a broad sense, but they don’t specifically say, “Oh, yes, we specifically use time on site and browse rate.” In fact, they’re very nuanced around this.

The only thing that I’ve heard engineers or search engine folks say is, “Yes, we do use pogo-sticking, and yes, we will look at some forms of amplification and some things around brand,” which you could interpret to mean maybe branded search and some things around brand that could be interpreted as direct navigation. But they are not specific about this.

However, we’ve seen tons of experiments and lots of information that suggest that even if these aren’t exactly what they’re using, they’re using stuff like it. When you see experiments that show, hey, despite the fact that site speed is a very small factor, we reduced the page load time and saw all these wonderful things happen around search. What’s going on there? It’s some form of engagement. It’s something they’re measuring around that, that’s not just site speed, but engagement overall. That increases as you bring page load speed down.

So what’s the problem here? Why is it that SEOs, many of us at least, are not optimizing for this yet? Well, the answers are oftentimes we don’t have the authority. If you go to someone, you pitch an SEO project internally at your company, you’re the person who runs SEO, and they’re like, “No, you take care of our crawlability. You take care of our links. You’re not responsible for how much traffic we send out or the time on site and browse rate or amplification and press.” Those are all different departments, and it’s very tough to get that synchronization between them.

We may not have access to the tools or the data that we need to measure this stuff and then to show improvements. That’s very tough and hard too.

Then the inputs around a lot of this stuff are not direct. Let’s go back to links as an example. If you know that links are the big ranking factor for you, you can show, “Hey, we got this many links. Here’s how it changed our ranking position. We need more. Here’s how we go about getting them.” Plan, execution, analysis, it’s simple. It’s direct. It may not be easy, but it is observable.

This is often indirect. There are so many things that impact this stuff that’s indirect, and that’s really tough and frustrating.

As solutions, it’s going to be our job to do what early SEOs had to do — socialize. We have to go out to the industry, to our colleagues, to our clients if we’re consultants, to other web professionals across all the forms of marketing, and we have to socialize the fact that engagement is a major input into SEO, just like SEOs did starting in about 1999/2000, where we had to explain, “Look, this is how links work. Links are important. It’s not just about getting listed in the directory. It’s not just about keywords anymore. It’s not just about meta tags anymore. Links really matter here. I can show you Google’s PageRank paper here. I can show you all these patent applications here. I can show you the impact of links.”

We have to do that again with engagement. That’s going to be tough. That’s going to be an uphill battle, but I believe it’s something we’re already starting. A lot of industry leaders have done this ahead of this Whiteboard Friday for sure.

Second off, we’ve got to utilize the tools that we do have available to be able to get some of this data, and there are some. While I am no big fan of Google Webmaster Tools — I think a lot of the data in there is inaccurate — we can look at trending numbers around things like branded search, and we can do that through Google Analytics. So Google Analytics, yes, keyword not provided is 90% of your referrals. That’s okay. Take the sample 10% and show over time whether you’re getting a bigger and bigger proportion and bigger and bigger quantities of branded search. That’s a directional input that you can use to say, “Look, our brand is growing in search. There it is.”

You can do user testing around search results. This is something I see very few folks doing. We often do usability and user testing on our websites, but we don’t do them in the search results. If you ask a group of five users, “Hey, go perform this search. Take a look at these 10 results. Tell me which one you would choose and why. Now tell me your second choice and why. Now tell me your third choice and why,” you will get to things like time on site. You’ll get to things around pogo-sticking. You’ll get to those engagement metrics that happen in the search results.

Then, of course, you can use, if you’re a Moz subscriber, Fresh Web Explorer or something like mention.net or Talkwalker or Trackur or something to get these amplification numbers and data that you might not be able to get from raw links themselves. This is gettable data, just in different ways than we’re used to.

Finally, we actually are going to have to change what we’re comfortable with. We’re going to have to get comfortable in a world where the ranking factors are indirectly influenceable, not directly influenceable. That’s weird for us, because we’ve always said, “Okay, algorithm has all these factors. I can influence these ones. That’s the ones I need to work on. I’m going to go to work.”

Now we have to go, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. In order to influence traffic referrals, I’m going to have to do things around my content, things around how I earn traffic, and then, boy, I don’t know if that’ll have a direct impact on my rankings.” You don’t. This is a world of indirect inputs. This thing, this tactic I’m going to pursue is going to lead to this thing, which I hope is going to lead to engagement, which I hope is going to lead to rankings.

That’s frustrating. It’s harder to sell. It’s harder to invest in, but, oh man, the ROI is there. If you can do it, if you can earn that buy-in, you can make these investments, and then through experimentation, you can learn what works for you and where you need to move the needle. This is going to be weird because it’s a world where our tactics are correlated, but they aren’t explicitly causal into the ways that we influence the rankings. It’s a whole new world, but it’s about to be a new year, and I think it’s a great time for us to invest in engagement.

With that, happy holidays, whatever holidays you celebrate. Happy new year if you celebrate the new year. I’m looking forward to seeing lots of you here on Whiteboard Friday in 2015. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Reblogged 3 years ago from moz.com

How To Select The Perfect Clients

Posted by Bill.Sebald

I truly believe in the power of partnerships. There have been some incredible partnerships that changed the fabric of our culture. Larry Page and Sergey Brin. William Procter and James Gamble. The Olson Twins.

Good partnerships provide support, motivation, and complementary skills, often allowing you to overcome hurdles faster and create some truly marvelous things. In consulting or any agency work, the concept of “partnership” should be the backbone of your relationship. Like a puzzle piece, sometimes the fit is initially difficult to find – if available at all. The truth is, you’re only secure if your clients are walking in the same direction as the flow of your service. If they’re walking against the current, you have what I believe to be the most detrimental predicament a service provider can have –
a rift. That’s a truly offensive four-letter word.

What kind of rift are we talking about? Let’s do a little calculating.

First think about what you or your agency is really good at. Think about the components you have the most success with; this may actually be different than where you’re most experienced. Think about what you should be selling versus not (even if those items are currently on your menu – let’s be candid here, a lot of us casually promote services we
believe we should be selling even though it’s not a fully baked product or core competency). Think about the amount of time you really spent challenging a given service to make sure it’s truly impactful to a client versus your own bottom line.

Next, think about your past client debacles (if you haven’t stopped to perform a postmortem, you should). Chances are these led to events that cost you a lot of time, pain, and possibly money. They are the memories that make you shudder. Those are the days that made you dust off your resume and think about a career change.  

Finally, how many of these past clients should have never been signed in the first place? How many simply weren’t a fit from the start? How many simply never had a shot at being successful with you – and vice-versa? This computation really needs serious consideration. Have you wasted everyone’s time?

There can be a costly fallout. I’ve seen talented team members quit over clients that simply could not be managed. I’ve seen my colleagues go so far as to cry or start seeking therapy (in part) because of overwhelming clients who were not getting what they expected and a parent company who wasn’t providing any relief. Sometimes these clients were bound to an annual contract which only made them more desperate and angry. Rifts like this can kill your business.

This should never happen.

Client/agency relationships are marriages, but marriages start with dating

I really like this 2011 post from A List Apart called
Marry Your Clients. A few years old, but nothing has changed. However, my post is going to talk about the courting part before the honeymoon.

My post also assumes you make more money on longer consulting relationships. If you’ve somehow built your model through routinely hunting new business with the expectation you’re going to get fired, then that’s a different story. For most of us however, on-boarding a client is a lot of work, both in terms of hours (which is money) and brainpower. If you “hit it off” with your client, you begin to know their business more intimately, as well as their goals and KPIs. The strategies get easier to build; they also tend to be more successful as you become aware of what their tastes and limitations are. You find you have things in common (perhaps you both enjoy long walks to the bank). You often become true partners with your clients, who in turn promote your ideas to their bosses. These are your most profitable engagements, as well as your most rewarding. They tend to last years, sometimes following your point-of-contact to their next jobs as well.

But you don’t get this way simply because both parties signed a legally-bounding document.

The truth is not all parties can work together. A lot of client/agency relationships end in divorce. Like in romance, sometimes you just aren’t compatible.

A different kind of online dating

After my first marriage went kaput, I’ll admit I went to Match.com. For those who never tried online dating, it’s really an exercise in personal marketing. You upload your most attractive pictures. You sell yourself above everyone else. You send communications back and forth to the interested parties where you work to craft the “perfect” response; as well as ask qualifying questions. I found it works pretty well – the online process saved me from potentially bad dates. Don’t get me wrong, I still have some awkward online dating stories…

Photo from Chuck Woolery’s
Twitter profile

With consulting, if we’re supposed to ultimately marry our clients, we should obviously be allowed to see if there’s a love connection. We should all be our own Chuck Woolery. I tend to think this stage is crucial, but often rushed by agencies or managed by a department outside of your own.

Some agencies seem to have a “no dating” policy. For some, it’s not uncommon to come in to work and have an email from a higher-up with the subject, “congratulations – you’re now married to a new client!” Whether it’s a client development department, or an add-on from an existing client, your marketing department is suddenly forced into an arranged marriage where you can only hope to live up to their expectations.

This is a recipe for disaster. I don’t like to run a business on luck and risk, so clearly this makes no sense to me.

But I’ve been there. I once worked for an agency that handed me a signed contract for a major underwear brand – but I didn’t even know we were even speaking to them. Before I had a chance to get the details, the VP of digital marketing called me. I did my best to understand what they were promised in terms of SEO goals without admitting I really had no clue about their business. The promises were unrealistic, but being somewhat timid and naïve back in the day, I went with it. Truth is, their expectations did not fit into our model, philosophies, or workflow. Ultimately I failed to deliver to their expectations. The contract ended early and I vowed to never let that happen again. Not just for the stress and anxiety it brought upon my team and me, but for the blatant neglect to the client as well.

With this being something I never forgot, I would occasionally bring this story up with others I met at networking events or conventions. I quickly learned this is far from an isolated incident occurring only to me. This is how some agencies build their business development departments.

Once again, this should never happen.

How to qualify a client

Let’s assume by now I have successfully inspired a few things:

  1. A client/agency relationship should truly be a partnership akin to a good marriage.
  2. A client should never be thrown into a model that doesn’t make sense for their business (i.e., your style of SEO services), and process should be in place for putting all the parties in the same room before a deal is signed.

    Now we’re up to number 3:

  3. Not all relationships work, so all parties should try to truly connect before there is a proposal. Don’t rush the signature!

Here are some of the things we do at Greenlane to really qualify a client. Before I continue, though, I’m proud to brag a little. With these practices in place, our close rate – that is, the companies we really want to work with – is 90% in our favor. Our retainment is also very high. Once we started being prudent with our intake, we’ve only lost a few companies due to funding issues or a change in their business model – not out of performance. I should also add that these tips work with all sizes of clients. While some of our 20+ clients are smaller businesses, we also have household brands and public companies, all of which could attest to going through this process with us.

It’s all in the details

Your website is your Match.com profile. Your website is your personality. If you’re vague or promotional or full of hype, only to get someone on the phone to which your “car salesman” gear kicks in, I don’t think you’re using the website to the best of its ability. People want to use the website to learn more about you before the reach out.

Our “about us” page is our third most visited page next to the homepage and pricing (outside of the blog). You can see an example from a 
Hotjar heatmap:

The truth is, I’m always tweaking (and A/B testing) our message on the about us page. This page is currently part of a funnel that we careful put together. The “about us” page is a quick but powerful overview putting our team front and center and highlighting our experience (including some past clients).

I believe the website’s more than a brochure. It’s a communication device. Don’t hide or muddle who you are. When I get a prospect email through our form, I always lead them to our “Are We The Right Fit” page. That’s right – I actually ask them to consider choosing wisely. Now at first glance, this might go against a conversion funnel that heats up the prospect and only encourages momentum, but this page has really been a strong asset. It’s crafted to transparently present our differentiators, values, and even our pricing. It’s also crafted to discourage those who aren’t a good fit. You can find this page
here. Even our URL provides the “Are We The Right Fit” question.

We want prospects to make a good decision. We care so much about companies doing great that we’d rather you find someone else if our model isn’t perfect. Sure, sometimes after pointing someone to that link, they never return. That’s OK. Just like a dating profile, this page is designed to target a certain kind of interest. Time is a commodity in agency life – no sense in wasting it on a conversation that isn’t qualified. When we do catch a prospect after reviewing the page and hear, “we went with another firm who better suits our needs,” it actually doesn’t feel like a loss at all.

Everyone who comes back goes into our pipeline. At this stage they all get followed up on with a phone call. If they aren’t a good fit from the get go we actually try to introduce them to other SEO companies or consultants who would be a better fit for them. But 9 times out of 10, it’s an amazing conversation.

Never drop the transparency

There are a few things I try to tell all the prospects I ultimately speak with. One, I openly admit I’m not a salesman. I couldn’t sell ice water to people in hell. But I’m good at being really candid about our strengths and experiences.

Now this one tends to surprise some, especially in the larger agency setting. We admit that we are really choosy about the clients we take on. For our model, we need clients who are flexible, fast moving, interested in brand building, and interested in long-term relationships. We want clients who think in terms of strategy and will let us work with their existing marketing team and vendors. We audit them for their understanding of SEO services and tell them how we’re either alike or different.

I don’t think a prospect call goes by without me saying, “while you’re checking us out to see if we’re a good fit, we’re doing the same for you.” Then, if the call goes great, I let them know we’d like a follow up call to continue (a second date if you will). This follow up call has been where the real decision gets made.

Ask the right questions

I’ve vetted the opportunity, now my partner – who naturally has a different way of approaching opportunities and relationships – asks a different set of questions. This adds a whole different dimension and works to catch the questions I may not have asked. We’ve had companies ready to sign on the first call, to which I’ve had to divert any signatures until the next conversation. This too may seem counter-intuitive to traditional business development, but we find it extremely valuable. It’s true that we could have more clients in our current book of business, but I can proudly state that every current client is exactly who we want to be with; this is very much because of everything you’ve read so far.

On each call we have a list of qualifying questions that we ask. Most are “must answer” questions, while others can roll into a needs analysis questionnaire that we give to each signed client. The purpose of the needs analysis is to get more granular into business items (such as seasonal trends, industry intelligence, etc.) for the intention of developing strategies. With so much to ask, it’s important to be respectful of the prospects’ time. At this point they’ve usually already indicated they’ve read our website, can afford our prices, and feel like we’re a good fit.

Many times prospects start with their introduction and answer some of our questions. While they speak, I intently listen and take many notes.

These are 13 questions from my list that I always make sure get answered on a call, with some rationale:

Questions for the prospect:

1. Can you describe your business model and products/services?

  1. What do you sell?
  2. B2B or B2C
  3. Retail or lead generation?

Rationale
: sometimes when reviewing the website it’s not immediately clear what kind of business they’re in. Perhaps the site just does a bad job, or sometimes their real money making services are deeper in the site and easily missed by a fast scan. One of our clients works with the government and seems to have an obvious model, but the real profit is from a by-product, something we would have never picked up on during our initial review of the website. It’s important to find out exactly what the company does. Is it interesting? Can you stay engaged? Is it a sound model that you believe in? Is it a space you have experience in?

2. What has been your experience with [YOUR SERVICE] in the past?

Rationale: Many times, especially if your model is different, a prospect may have a preconceived notion of what you actually do. Let’s take SEO as an example – there are several different styles of SEO services. If they had a link building company in the past, and you’re a more holistic SEO consulting practice, their point of reference may only be with what they’ve experienced. They may even have a bad taste in their mouth from a previous engagement, which gives you a chance to air it out and see how you compare. This is also a chance to know if you’re potentially playing with a penalized site.

3. What are your [PPC/SEO/etc.] goals?

Rationale: Do they have realistic goals, or lofty, impossible goals? Be candid – tell them if you don’t think you can reach the goals on the budget they have, or if you think they should choose other goals. Don’t align yourself with goals you can’t hit. This is where many conversations could end.

4. What’s your mission or positioning statement?

Rationale: If you’re going to do more than just pump up their rankings, you probably want to know the full story. This should provide a glimpse into other marketing the prospect is executing.

5. How do you stand out?

Rationale: Sometimes this is answered with the question above. If not, really dig up the differentiators. Those are typically the key items to build campaigns on.  Whether they are trying to create a new market segment or have a redundant offering, this can help you set timeline and success expectations.

6. Are you comfortable with an agency that may challenge your plans and ideas?

Rationale: This is one of my favorite questions. There are many who hire an agency and expect “yes-men.” Personally I believe an agency or consultant should be partners; that is, not afraid to fight for what they know is right for the benefit of the client. You shouldn’t be afraid of injury:

 

7. Who are your competitors?

Rationale: Not only do you want this for competitive benchmarking, but this can often help you understand more about the prospect. Not to mention, how big a hill you might have to climb to start competing on head terms.

8. What is your business reach? (local, national, international)?

Rationale: An international client is going to need more work than a domestic client. A local client is going to need an expertise in local search. Knowing the scope of the company can help you align your skills with their targets.

9. What CMS are you on?

Rationale:
 This is a big one. It tells you how much flexibility you will have. WordPress?  Great – you’ll probably have a lot of access to files and templates.  A proprietary CMS or enterprise solution?  Uh-oh.  That probably means tickets and project queues. Are you OK with that?

10. What does your internal team look like?

Rationale:
Another important question. Who will you be working with?  What skill sets?  Will you be able to sit at the table with other vendors too?  If you’re being hired to fill in the gaps, make sure you have the skills to do so. I ask about copywriters, developers, designers, and link builders at a minimum.

11. What do you use for analytics?

Rationale:
A tool like Wappalyzer can probably tell you, but sometimes bigger companies have their own custom analytics through their host. Sometimes it’s bigger than Google Analytics, like Omniture. Will you be allowed to have direct access to it?  You’d be surprised how often we hear no.

12. How big is your site?  Do you have other properties?

Rationale:
It’s surprising how often a prospect forgets to mention those 30+ subdomains and microsites. If the prospect envisions it as part of the deal, you should at least be aware of how far the core website extends.

13. What is your budget, preferred start time, and end date?

Rationale:
The biggest question of all. Do they even meet your fee requirements? Are you staffed and ready to take on the work? Sure, talking money can be tough, but if you post your rates firm, the prospect is generally more open to talk budget. They don’t feel like a negotiation is going to happen.

Conclusion

While these are the core questions we use, I’m sure the list will eventually grow. I don’t think you should copy our list, or the order.  You should ultimately create your own. Every agency or consultant has different requirements, and interviewing your prospect is as important as allowing them to interview you. But remember, you don’t have to have all the business.  Just the right kind of business.  You will grow organically from your positive experiences.  We all hear about “those other agencies” and how they consistently fail to meet client expectations. Next to “do great work,” this is one powerful way to keep off that list.  

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Reblogged 3 years ago from feedproxy.google.com

The Coming Integration of PR and SEO

Posted by SamuelScott

Earlier this year, I published a Moz post that aimed to introduce the
basic principles of public relations that SEOs and digital marketers, I argued, need to know. (Specifically, the post was on media relations and story-pitching as a means of getting coverage and “earning” good links.)

Following the positive response to the post, Moz invited me to host a recent Mozinar on the integration of PR and SEO. (
You can listen to it and download the slides here for free!) As a former print journalist who later became a digital marketer, I love to discuss this niche because I am very passionate about the topic.

In summary, the Mozinar discussed:

  • Traditional marketing and communications theory
  • Why both inbound and outbound marketing are needed
  • An overview of the basic PR process
  • How to use PR software
  • Examples of messaging and positioning
  • Where to research demographic data for audience profiles
  • How to integrate SEO into each step of the workflow
  • How SEO and PR teams can help each other
  • Why the best links come as natural results of doing good PR and marketing
  • “Don’t think about how to get links. Think about how to get coverage and publicity.”

At the end of the Mozinar, the community had some intriguing and insightful questions (no surprise there!), and Moz invited me to write a follow-up post to provide more answers and discuss the relationship between SEO and PR further.

Follow-ups to the PR Mozinar

Before I address the questions and ideas at the end of the Mozinar, I just wanted to give some more credit where the credit is certainly due.

People like me, who write for major publications or speak at large conferences, get a lot of attention. But, truth is, we are always helped immensely by so many of our talented colleagues behind the scenes. Since the beginning of my digital marketing career, I have known about SEO, but I have learned more about public relations from observing (albeit from a distance) The Cline Group’s front line PR team in Philadelphia over the years.

So, I just wanted to thank (in alphabetical order)
Kim Cox, Gabrielle Dratch, Caitlin Driscoll, Max Marine, and Ariel Shore as well as our senior PR executives Bill Robinson and DeeDee Rudenstein and CEO Josh Cline. What I hope the Moz community learned from the Mozinar is what I have learned from them.

Now, onto the three Mozinar Q&A questions that had been left unanswered.

  • Why do you use Cision and not Vocus or Meltwater or others?

I do not want to focus on why The Cline Group specifically uses Cision. I would not want my agency (and indirectly Moz) to be seen as endorsing one type of PR software over another. What I can do is encourage people to read these writings from 
RMP Media Analysis, LinkedIn, Alaniz Marketing and Ombud, then do further research into which platform may work best for them and their specific companies and needs.

(Cision and Vocus recently agreed to merge, with the combined company continuing under the Cision brand.)

  • Do you have examples of good PR pitches?

I’ve anonymized and uploaded three successful client pitches to our website. You can download them here: a
mobile-advertising network, a high-end vaporizer for the ingestion of medicinal herbs and a mobile app that helps to protect personal privacy. As you will see, these pitches incorporated the various tactics that I had detailed in the Mozinar.

Important caveat: Do not fall into the trap of relying too much on templates. Every reporter and every outlet you pitch will be different. The ideas in these examples of pitches may help, but please do not use them verbatim. 

  • Are there other websites similar to HARO (Help a Reporter Out) that people can use to find reporters who are looking for stories? Are the other free, simpler tools?

Some commonly mentioned tools are
My Blog U, ProfNet, BuzzStream and My Local Reporter. Raven Tools also has a good-sized list. But I can only vouch for My Blog U because it’s the only one I have used personally. It’s also important to note that using a PR tool is not a magic bullet. You have to know how to use it in the context of the overall public relations process. Creating a media list is just one part of the puzzle.

An infographic of integration

And now, the promised infographic!

I told the Mozinar audience we would provide a detailed infographic as a quick guide to the step-by-step process of PR and SEO integration. Well, here it is:

pr-seo-infographic-final.jpg

A second credit to my awesome colleague
Thomas Kerr, who designs most of The Cline Group’s presentations and graphics while also being our social media and overall digital wizard.

Just a few notes on the infographic:

First, I have segmented the two pillars by “PR and Traditional Marketing” and “SEO & Digital Marketing.” I hate to sound stereotypical, but the use of this differentiation was the easiest way to explain the integration process. The “PR” side deals with
people and content (e.g., messaging, media relations, and materials, etc.), while the “SEO” side focuses on things (e.g., online data, analytics, and research, etc.). See the end of this post for an important prediction.

Second, I have put social media on the online side because that is where the practice seems to sit in most companies and agencies. However, social media is really just a set of PR and communications channels, so it will likely increasingly move to the “traditional marketing” side of things. Again, see the end.

Third, there is a CMO / VP of Marketing / Project Leader (based on the structure of a company and whether the context is an agency or an in-house department) column between SEO and PR. This position should be a person with enough experience in both disciplines to mediate between the two as well as make judgment calls and final decisions in the case of conflicts. “SEO,” for example, may want to use certain keyword-based language in messaging in an attempt to rank highly for certain search terms. “PR” might want to use different terms that may resonate more with media outlets and the public. Someone will need to make a decision.

Fourth, it is important to understand that companies with numerous brands, products or services, and/or a diverse set of target audiences will need to take additional steps:

The marketing work for each brand, product, or service will need its own specific goal and KPI(s) in step one. Separate audience research and persona development will need to be performed for each distinct audience in step two. So, for a larger company, such as the one described above, parts of steps 3-8 below will often need to be done, say, six times, once for each audience of each product.

However, the complexity does not end there.

Online and offline is the same thing

Essentially, as more and more human activity occurs online, we are rapidly approaching a point where the offline and online worlds are merging into the same space. “Traditional” and “online” marketing are all collectively becoming simply “marketing.”

Above is our modern version of traditional communications and marketing theory. A sender decides upon a message; the message is packaged into a piece of content; the content is transmitted via a desired channel; and the channel delivers the content to the receiver. Marketing is essentially sending a message that is packaged into a piece of content to a receiver via a channel. The rest is just details.

As Google becomes smarter and smarter, marketers will need to stop thinking only about SEO and think more like, well, marketers. Mad Men’s Don Draper, the subject of the meme at the top of the page, would best the performance of any link builder today because he understood how to gain mass publicity and coverage, both of which have always been more important than just building links here and there. The best and greatest numbers of links come naturally as a
result of good marketing and not as a result of any direct linkbuilding. In the 2014 Linkbuilding Survey published on Moz, most of the (good) tactics that were described in the post – such as “content plus outreach” – are PR by another name.

At SMX West 2014 (where I gave a talk on SEO and PR strategy), Rand Fishkin took to the main stage to discuss what the future holds for SEO. Starting at 6:30 in the video above, he argued that there will soon be a bias towards brands in organic search. (For an extensive discussion of this issue, I’ll refer you to Bryson Meunier’s essay at Search Engine Land.) I agree that it will soon become crucial to use PR, advertisingand publicity to build a brand, but that action is something the Don Drapers of the world had already known to do long before the Internet had ever existed.

But things are changing

The process that I have outlined above is a little vague on purpose. The lines between SEO and PR are increasingly blurring as online and offline marketing becomes more and more integrated. For example, take this very post: is it me doing SEO or PR for our agency (while
first and foremost aiming to help the readers)? The answer: Yes.

In a Moz post by Jason Acidre on
SEO and brand building, I commented with the following:

Say, 10 years ago, “SEOs” were focused on techie things: keyword research, sitemaps, site hierarchy, site speed, backlinks, and a lot more. Then, as Google became smarter and the industry become more and more mature, “SEOs” woke up one day and realized that online marketers need to think, you know, like marketers. Now, I get the sense that digital marketers are trying to learn all about traditional marketing as much as possible because, in the end, all marketing is about
people — not machines and algorithms. What the f&*# is a positioning statement? What is a pitch? I just wish “SEOs” had done this from the beginning.

Of course, the same thing has been occurring in the inverse in the traditional marketing world. Traditional marketers have usually focused on these types of things: messaging documents, media lists, promotional campaigns, the 4 Ps, and SWOT analyses. Then, as more human activity moved to the Internet, they also woke up one day and saw an anarchic set of communications channels that operate under different sets of rules. Now, on the other end, I get the sense that traditional marketers are trying to learn as much as possible about SEO and digital marketing. 
What the f&^% is a rel=canonical tag? What is Google+ authorship? I just wish traditional marketers had done this from the start.

In fact, such a separation between SEO and PR is quickly dying. Here is a simplified version of the marketing and communications process I outlined at the beginning:

Traditional marketers and communications professionals have used this process for decades, and almost everything that (the umbrella term of) SEO does can fit into one of these boxes. A message can appear in a newspaper article or in a blog post. Content can be a sales brochure or an e-book. A channel can be the television or Facebook. A lot of  technical and on-page SEO is simply good web development. The most-effective type of off-page SEO is just PR and publicity. Public-relations executives, as I
have written elsewhere, can also learn to use analytics as yet another way to gauge results.

It all goes back to this tweet from Rand, which I cite in nearly every offline conversation with the marketing community:

SEO as an entity (sorry for the pun)
unto itself is quickly dying. The more SEO entails, the more the umbrella term becomes useless in any meaningful context. For this reason, it is crucial that digital marketers learn as much as possible about traditional marketing and PR.

So, in the end, how does one integrate public relations and SEO? By simply doing good
marketing.

Want more? Don’t forget to watch the Mozinar — I’d love to get your feedback in the comments below!

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Panda 4.1: The Devil Is in the Aggregate

Posted by russvirante

I wish I didn’t have to say this. I wish I could look in the eyes of every victim of the last Panda 4.1 update and tell them it was something new, something unforeseeable, something out of their control. I wish I could tell them that Google pulled a fast one that no one saw coming. But I can’t.

Like many in the industry, I have been studying Panda closely since its inception. Google gave us a rare glimpse behind the curtain by providing us with the very guidelines they set in place to build their massive machine-learned algorithm which came to be known as Panda. Three and a half years later, Panda is still with us and seems to still catch us off guard.
Enough is enough.

What I intend to show you throughout this piece is that the original Panda questionnaire still remains a powerful predictive tool to wield in defense of what can be a painful organic traffic loss. By analyzing the winner/loser reports of Panda 4.1 using standard Panda surveys, we can determine whether Google’s choices are still in line with their original vision. So let’s dive in.

The process

The first thing we need to do is acquire a winners and losers list. I picked this excellent
one from SearchMetrics although any list would do as long as it is accurate. Second, I proceeded to run a Panda questionnaire with 10 questions on random pages from each of the sites (both the winners and losers). You can run your own Panda survey by following Distilled and Moz’s instructions here or just use PandaRisk like I did. After completing these analyses, we simply compare the scores across the board to determine whether they continue to reflect what we would expect given the original goals of the Panda algorithm.

The aggregate results

I actually want to do this a little bit backwards to drive home a point. Normally we would build to the aggregate results, starting with the details and leaving you with the big picture. But Panda
is a big-picture kind of algorithmic update. It is specially focused on the intersection of myriad features, the sum is greater than the parts. While breaking down these features can give us some insight, at the end of the day we need to stay acutely aware that unless we do well across the board, we are at risk.

Below is a graph of the average cumulative scores across the winners and losers. The top row are winners, the bottom row are losers. The left and right red circles indicate the lowest and highest scores within those categories, and the blue circle represents the average. There is something very important that I want to point out on this graph.
The highest individual average score of all the losers is less than the lowest average score of the winners. This means that in our randomly selected data set, not a single loser averaged as high a score as the worst winner. When we aggregate the data together, even with a crude system of averages rather than the far more sophisticated machine learning techniques employed by Google, there is a clear disparity between the sites that survive Panda and those that do not.

It is also worth pointing out here that there is no
positive Panda algorithm to our knowledge. Sites that perform well on Panda do not see boosts because they are being given ranking preference by Google, rather their competitors have seen rankings loss or their own previous Panda penalties have been lifted. In either scenario, we should remember that performing well on Panda assessments isn’t going to necessarily increase your rankings, but it should help you sustain them.

Now, let’s move on to some of the individual questions. We are going to start with the least correlated questions and move to those which most strongly correlate with performance in Panda 4.1. While all of the questions had positive correlations, a few lacked statistical significance.


Insignificant correlation

The first question which was not statistically significant in its correlation with Panda performance was “This page has visible errors on it”. The scores have been inverted here so that the higher the score, the fewer the number of people who reported that the page has errors. You can see that while more respondents did say that the winners had no visible errors, the difference was very slight. In fact, there was only a 5.35% difference between the two. I will save comment on this until after we discuss the next question.

The second question which was not statistically significant in its correlation with Panda performance was “This page has too many ads”. The scores have once again been inverted here so that the higher the score, the fewer the number of people who reported that the page has too many ads. This was even closer. The winners performed only 2.3% better than the losers in Panda 4.1.

I think there is a clear takeaway from these two questions. Nearly everyone gets the easy stuff right, but that isn’t enough. First, a lot of pages just have no ads whatsoever because that isn’t their business model. Even those that do have ads have caught on for the most part and optimized their pages accordingly, especially given that Google has other layout algorithms in place aside from Panda. Moreover, content inaccuracy is more likely to impact scrapers and content spinners than most sites, so it is unsurprising that few if any reported that the pages were filled with errors. If you score poorly on either of these, you have only begun to scratch the surface, because most websites get these right enough.


Moderate correlation

A number of Panda questions drew statistically significant difference in means but there was still substantial crossover between the winners and losers.
Whenever the average of the losers was greater than the lowest of the winners, I considered it only a moderate correlation. While the difference between means remained strong, there was still a good deal of variance in the scores. 

The first of these to consider was the question as to whether the content was “trustworthy”. You will notice a trend in a lot of these questions that there is a great deal of subjective human opinion. This subjectivity plays itself out quite a bit when the topics of the site might deal with very different categories of knowledge. For example, a celebrity fact site might be very trustworthy (although the site might be ad-laden) and an opinion piece in the New Yorker on the same celebrity might not be seen as trustworthy – even though it is plainly labeled as opinion. The trustworthy question ties back to the “does this page have errors” question quite nicely, drawing attention to the difference between a subjective and objective question and the way it can spread the means out nicely when you ask a respondent to give more of a personal opinion. This might seem unfair, but in the real world your site and Google itself is being judged by that subjective opinion, so it is understandable why Google wants to get at it algorithmically. Nevertheless, there was a strong difference in means between winners and losers of 12.57%, more than double the difference we saw between winners and losers on the question of Errors.

Original content has long been a known requirement of organic search success, so no one was surprised when it made its way into the Panda questionnaire. It still remains an influential piece of the puzzle with a difference in mean of nearly 20%. It was barely ruled out from being a heavily correlated feature due to one loser edging out a loss against the losers’ average mean. Notice though that one of the winners scored a perfect 100% on the survey. This perfect score was received despite hundreds of respondents.
It can be done.

As you can imagine, perception on what is and is not an authority is very subjective. This question is powerful because it pulls in all kinds of assumptions and presuppositions about brand, subject matter, content quality, design, justification, citations, etc. This likely explains why this question is beleaguered by one of the highest variances on the survey. Nevertheless, there was a 13.42% difference in means. And, on the other side of the scale, we did see what it is like to have a site that is clearly not an authority, scoring the worst possible 0% on this question. This is what happens when you include highly irrelevant content on your site just for the purpose of picking up either links or traffic. Be wary.

Everyone hates the credit card question, and luckily there is huge variance in answers. At least one site survived Panda despite scoring 5% on this question. Notice that there is a huge overlap between the lowest winner and the average of the losing sites. Also, if you notice by the placement of the mean (blue circle) in the winners category, the average wasn’t skewed to the right indicating just one outlier. There was strong variance in the responses across the board. The same was true of the losers. However, with a +15% difference in means, there was a clear average differentiation between the performance of winners and losers. Once again, though, we are drawn back to that aggregate score at the top, where we see how Google can use all these questions together to build a much clearer picture of site and content quality. For example, it is possible that Google pays more attention to this question when it is analyzing a site that has other features like the words “shopping cart” or “check out” on the homepage. 

I must admit that the bookmarking question surprised me. I always considered it to be the most subjective of the bunch. It seemed unfair that a site might be judged because it has material that simply doesn’t appeal to the masses. The survey just didn’t bear this out though. There was a clear difference in means, but after comparing the sites that were from similar content categories, there just wasn’t any reason to believe that a bias was created by subject matter. The 14.64% difference seemed to be, editorially speaking, related more to the construction of the page and the quality of the content, not the topic being discussed. Perhaps a better way to think about this question is:
would you be embarrassed if your friends knew THIS was the site you were getting your information from rather than another.

This wraps up the 5 questions that had good correlations but substantial enough variance that it was possible for the highest loser to beat out the average winner. I think one clear takeaway from this section is that these questions, while harder to improve upon than the Low Ads and No Errors questions before, are completely within the webmaster’s grasp. Making your content and site appear original, trustworthy, authoritative, and worthy of bookmarking aren’t terribly difficult. Sure, it takes some time and effort, but these goals, unlike the next, don’t appear that far out of reach.


Heavy correlation

The final three questions that seemed to distinguish the most between the winners and losers of Panda 4.1 all had high difference-in-means and, more importantly, had little to no crossover between the highest loser and lowest winner. In my opinion, these questions are also the hardest for the webmaster to address. They require thoughtful design, high quality content, and real, expert human authors.

The first question that met this classification was “could this content could appear in print”. With a difference in mean of 22.62%, the winners thoroughly trounced the losers in this category. Their sites and content were just better designed and better written. They showed the kind of editorial oversight you would expect in a print publication. The content wasn’t trite and unimportant, it was thorough and timely. 

The next heavily correlated question was whether the page was written by experts. With over a 34% difference in means between the winners and losers, and
literally no overlap at all between the winners’ and losers’ individual averages, it was clearly the strongest question. You can see why Google would want to look into things like authorship when they knew that expertise was such a powerful distinguisher between Panda winners and losers. This really begs the question – who is writing your content and do your readers know it?

Finally, insightful analysis had a huge difference in means of +32% between winners and losers. It is worth noting that the highest loser is an outlier, which is typified by the skewed mean (blue circle) being closer to the bottom that the top. Most of the answers were closer to the lower score than the top. Thus, the overlap is exaggerated a bit. But once again, this just draws us back to the original conclusion – that the devil is not in the details, the devil is in the aggregate. You might be able to score highly on one or two of the questions, but it won’t be enough to carry you through.


The takeaways

OK, so hopefully it is clear that Panda really hasn’t changed all that much. The same questions we looked at for Panda 1.0 still matter. In fact, I would argue that Google is just getting better at algorithmically answering those same questions, not changing them. They are still the right way to judge a site in Google’s eyes. So how should you respond?

The first and most obvious thing is you should run a Panda survey on your (or your clients’) sites. Select a random sample of pages from the site. The easiest way to do this is get an export of all of the pages of your site, perhaps from Open Site Explorer, put them in Excel and shuffle them. Then choose the top 10 that come up.  You can follow the Moz instructions I linked to above, do it at PandaRisk, or just survey your employees, friends, colleagues, etc. While the latter probably will be positively biased, it is still better than nothing. Go ahead and get yourself a benchmark.

The next step is to start pushing those scores up one at a time. I
give some solid examples on the Panda 4.0 release article about improving press release sites, but there is another better resource that just came out as well. Josh Bachynski released an amazing set of known Panda factors over at his website The Moral Concept. It is well worth a thorough read. There is a lot to take in, but there are tons of easy-to-implement improvements that could help you out quite a bit. Once you have knocked out a few for each of your low-scoring questions, run the exact same survey again and see how you improve. Keep iterating this process until you beat out each of the question averages for winners. At that point, you can rest assured that your site is safe from the Panda by beating the devil in the aggregate. 

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Outdated SEO Concepts People Still Think are Reality

Posted by katemorris

It’s on the internet, so it’s true.

The bane of the existence of all search marketers is old or incorrect information given to clients at
any point in time that they still hang on to. This post was inspired by an interaction with a client’s co-workers, people that are not thinking about SEO on a regular basis. This is not to knock them, but to bring to the attention of everyone that there is a continual need for education. These concepts have a way of hanging around.

And this isn’t about just clients either. This is about friends, parents, and partners. Does anyone else still get asked if they make pop-up ads when they try to explain what they do? (Just me? Crap.)

Doing research for this post, I noticed there are a ton of SEO misconceptions out there, and people are talking about them regularly, but many are related to content marketing or online marketing overall. I’m not covering all misconceptions, but those concepts that seem to be stuck to the idea of SEO and will not let go. Then I’ll give you resources to help educate the people that believe these misconceptions and alternate solutions to give them.


Hiding Cat by Aftab Uzzaman

Putting text behind an image

The inspiration. The client is struggling with balancing revenue and content on the page. There is a large image on the page now and we suggested editing the page to add content about the product. The question was asked if we could just put the content behind the image and solve both problems.

My client stepped in and answered the question wonderfully, but it brought to mind how many times I’ve seen overstuffed alt text attributes and content in a noscript tag that doesn’t match what’s in the Flash.

Additional resource

A Comprehensive Guide to Hidden Text

Alternate solution

In this instance, we recommended putting text below the fold for the users that wanted the information and keeping the current image for returning users. Balance that satisfies both user needs and the business goals.


Copying a competitor’s actions

This isn’t as obvious as hiding text, but it’s something that companies refuse to stop doing. It’s the concept that if a competitor is doing something, it must be worth doing. This goes for competitors ranking above a business, but it also covers competitors that the business just dislikes. We all have those competitors we want to “beat” and sometimes that makes us do things that are not fully researched and planned.

Amazon.com is my biggest annoyance. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the reasoning “but Amazon does it” by major brands that other businesses look up to. Amazon, like most major companies, tests many things, and there is a different person behind each test. If you work for a large company, you understand what I mean.

Additional resource

Stop Copying Your Competitors, They Don’t Know What They are Doing Either

Alternate solution

Everyone is on the hunt for the best results and bringing in new customers, retaining current customers, and making other stakeholders happy. The way you beat competitors is to listen to your stakeholders (customers, clients, partners, employees, investors) and make decisions based on their feedback as well as what is going on in the market.


Sheer number of links equals ranking

This has been debunked so many times it makes my head swim. That doesn’t change how many people still think that the total number of links (as reported by a third party tool like Moz, Majestic, or AHREFs) is the sole factor in ranking. Want to do better in SERPs? Well, we need to hire someone to build us some links! I’m going to leave one screen shot here (Search: “insurance”) and then we’ll get into resources and solutions for when you have to face this.

Additional resource

Moz Search Ranking Factors

Alternate solution

This is more of an “additional solution,” as links and mentions are still very important, but as seen above, it’s far from the only factor in ranking. It’s best to explain the different ranking factors like content relevance to the query, some social data, query deserves freshness, local, news, personalization, and all of the other things that can impact ranking. Focus on a marketing strategy that will not only result in links, but also send new customers through those links and engage the customers into lifelong evangelists.


A loss in traffic means you’ve been penalized

The next two are focused on the issue of penalties. So many people are afraid of being penalized. I think this goes back to the days of black marks in your school record. That or people are worried about losing revenue. Maybe that.

The media gets involved with SEO when there is a penalty and so that is what most people hear about. FTD and Overstock types of situations. Then disaster strikes and revenue falls unexpectedly. After some digging, they find that website traffic is down. This paired with emails business owners get at least once a quarter (in a good year) from fly by night SEO companies telling them they can help with SEO, promise the moon and warn of penalties.

The only logical conclusion is a penalty! We have all seen it and most reputable agencies pipelines are filled with leads from companies in this exact situation. The thing is that we never know if there is a penalty unless we dive into the situation, but I have seen times where there is no penalty.

Many things could have happened including:

  • A developer added a noindex tag to a section of the site when meaning to add it to one page or they disallowed that section.
  • The site was redesigned with URL changes that can drop the traffic coming into many sites if not done correctly.
  • PPC traffic stopped due to a corporate card expiring and not being updated.

Additional resource

Guide to Common SEO Penalties and How to Recover From Them

Alternate solution

Rather than paying the first person that will call you back, first look into what part of the site lost traffic and where that traffic was coming from in the past few months. Did you lose traffic from organic search, paid search, referral traffic, or social media? Try to narrow down what happened and figure it out from there. If you’re sure it was organic search, look into the date and ask your developers if anything changed about the site. If nothing did, check Google Webmaster Tools for any messages from Google about a penalty. If you’re sure it’s organic search and there are no messages, that’s a good time to contact a reputable agency. 


Duplicate content can incur a penalty

Penalty by Daniele Zanni

I did a talk on this very topic a few years back at Pubcon. So many people don’t take the time to understand what duplicate content is and how to fix it. More importantly, there is a misunderstanding that duplicate content can cause or is a penalty. 

Most clients assume that having duplicate content will incur the “search engine gods’ ” wrath, and that just isn’t true (for the most part; I mean, if your whole site is a copy of someone else’s site …). Duplicate content is a hindrance to site performance most of the time, but most likely not the cause for a substantial drop in traffic and definitely not a penalty from the search engines. 

Additional resource

Google’s Guidelines for Duplicate Content


Alternate solution

Don’t fret. Take the time to visit Webmaster Tools regularly and check out your duplicated title tags and meta descriptions for an easy look into what might be causing duplicate content or crawling issues on your site. Maintenance is the best medicine!


A call to educate

Education by Sean MacEntee

We sometimes live in a bubble where we think people know everything we do and take for granted information like everything above. If someone asked you how to create a P&L Statement, could you? Maybe, maybe not, but you get what I mean. Take the time to answer questions, whether from clients or colleagues if you are in-house. You would be amazed how much more YOU can learn from teaching others. 

So what are your horror stories? Let me know in the comments below!


Photo credits (all images are linked):

  • Internet Open by Blaise Alleyne
  • Hiding Cat by Aftab Uzzaman
  • Penalty by Daniele Zanni
  • Educate by Sean MacEntee

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Customer Journey Maps – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by kerrybodine

At every stage in the marketing funnel, it’s crucially important to empathize with your customers’ interactions with your business, feeling great about the high points and frustrated by the lows. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, MozCon 2014 speaker Kerry Bodine shows us all about customer journey mapping—a tool that allows us to visualize and learn from those experiences.

Video transcription

Hi, I’m Kerry Bodine. I am a customer experience consultant, and I am the co-author of a book called “Outside In.” The subtitle of the book is “The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business.” That’s really what I am all about. I try and help companies to take customer knowledge, customer insights and really bring it into their organization, so that they can become more customer-centric.

What I’d like to share with you today is a tool from the customer experience world that I think is really critical for every marketer out there to understand. It is called a “customer journey map.” Really simply, all a journey map is, is it’s an illustration that shows all the different steps that your customers go through as they do business with you over time.

In addition to showing just what they do, it also shows customers’ thoughts, their feeling, and their emotions. The goal of the customer journey map is really to get a holistic view of what the customer is going through from their point of view and really what it’s like for them on a personal level, that human level. I’ll share a little bit about how customer journey maps work, and we’ll wrap up with how you can do this yourselves within your own organizations.

What I’ve got behind me here is the start of a customer journey map, what this typically looks like. As you can see, as customers interact with you, it’s not just a straight line. Some of those experiences are going to be better, and some of those experiences are going to be worse. What you want to do is you want to track what those actually look like over time. Now ideally, you are going to be understanding where those bright spots are. Those are the things that your company is really doing well to help meet your customers’ goals.

You’ve also got to understand where things aren’t going so well for your customers, where you’re not delivering the value that they’re looking for, where you’re making it really difficult just to do business with you, or where you’re just not treating them as a human being. You’re treating them as just kind of a line in a spreadsheet or maybe a record in your CRM system. We’ve got to really understand our customers at a human level.

Why is a journey map like this so important for marketers? Well, part of the reason is that, at some point as we go along this journey, we’re going through that typical marketing funnel. The customer first learns about your products and services. Then there’s consideration, and they move into actually purchasing whatever it is that you’re providing. We’re not talking with those words when we’re doing a journey map, because no customer is out there saying, “Oh, I’m in the awareness phase right now of buying shoes.”

No, they’re just saying, “Hey, I’m out there researching shoes.”

Those are the types of steps that you put on here. As you go along, your customers are learning about your products and services, and then they’re buying them hopefully. At some point, the traditional role of the marketer ends. The rest of the customer journey, maybe receiving those shoes in the mail if they’ve ordered them online and then trying them on, and if they don’t fit, maybe the process of returning them, that all happens after that purchase point. We’ve got half of this customer journey that’s really all about making promises to the customer.

This is what marketing is traditionally set up to do. They are set up to help customers to understand why it’s going to be so amazing to spend money with their particular company. All of these different touch points here are in the service of making a promise to the customer about what they’re going to get after they’ve purchased from you. All of the touch points that follow are really about delivering on that promise. As you can see in this journey, the organization really didn’t deliver well on whatever it was that was promised during this phase over here.

The interesting thing is that not only do marketers need to care about these journey maps, but everyone else in the organization does as well. While marketers might be primarily responsible for this process of making promises, there are many, many other parts of the organization that are primarily responsible for delivering on those promises. You’ve got people who are working in customer service, in retail, in finance, in operations, behind the scenes, in parts of the organization like legal and IT, parts of the organization that never even talked to a customer typically during their employment at that company or maybe in their entire careers.

These journey maps can help to unite all of the different parts of the organization. It can help someone in marketing understand really what they need to be promising in order to have expectations set correctly for the end of this process. It can also help people who are responsible for delivering the rest of the customer experience. It can help them understand really what that pre-purchase experience is like and really what is being promised to customers.

This is really an effective tool at helping to break people out of their organizational silos, getting them to understand that holistic customer viewpoint across all the different touch points, and getting people within the organization to have empathy for each other, their fellow colleagues, or perhaps external partners, who are all playing a role in delivering this journey behind me.

How can you do this yourself within your organization? What I want to do is share with you a very simple method for doing journey mapping with any group. All you really need is to have a whiteboard like this, or maybe you’re going to have a big sheet of butcher paper that you can get at any office supply store. You want to have some markers. I typically like using Sharpie markers, because you can read them from a distance. My very, very favorite tool for doing this, packs of sticky notes.

All you’re going to do is you’re going to write down each step in the customer journey on a different sticky note. Then all you need to do is put them up on your whiteboard or your piece of white butcher paper in the order that the customer would go through their particular journey.

I mentioned buying shoes before, and what I’m putting up here are all the different steps that a customer might go through if they were buying shoes from your company. They’re going to search for the shoes. They’re going to follow a link to a website. They’re going to learn about the product. They’re going to buy the shoes. They’re going to wait to receive them. Then they’ll finally receive them. They’re going to try on the shoes, and they’re not going to fit here. They’re going to go to the website, but they can’t find the returns information. They’re going to call customer service. They’re going to get the return information. I’m running out of room here. They’re going to print a return label. They’re going to box up their shoes, and then they’re going to drop the box off at the shipper, UPS or USPS, whatever it is that they’re using.

That’s really the basic building blocks of creating a journey map. It’s just going through and mapping out step by step what the customer is going through. I like using stickers for this. You can get red and green stickers at your office supply store. You can use markers. The idea is that you’re going to note where the different steps in that process are going well and then maybe where those steps start to go south. This will give you a really good depiction of where the problem points are in your customer journey and where you need to focus on improving interactions to better meet your customer’s needs.

You can go a lot further with this. You can start detailing what your customers are thinking and what they’re feeling. You can add those in on different colors of Post-it notes. You can also denote all of the different touch points that they’re interacting with. Are they talking to the call center? Are they on the website? Are they on Google? Whatever those touch points happen to be. You can even dig down deeper into the organization to start to identify who is responsible for all of those different interactions, so that again you really know where you need to be focusing on fixing the systemic problems within your organization.

What I would recommend that you do is conduct this type of exercise with people from across your organization. I mentioned that this is a really great tool for breaking down organizational silos. Really, that’s only going to happen if you get the people from all of those different organizational silos involved in creating this diagram. Hold a half-day workshop. Bring in people from all the different parts of your organization, maybe some of your key partners, and map out what you think this journey is based on your best assumptions about customers.

But don’t stop there, because, often, what we find are that our assumptions are either wrong or they’ve got big gaps in them. The second step to this process is to bring customers into the workshop and have them validate this. The beauty of this is that when you’ve created this out of sticky notes, your customers are going to have no problem going up and removing sticky notes, adding new sticky notes, moving them around so that the journey more accurately reflects what it is that they go through when they do business with you.

That is Journey Mapping 101. I hope that I’ve introduced you to a tool that you can use within your organization. If you would like more information about customer journey maps, please visit my website. It’s KerryBodine.com/CustomerJourneyMaps. Thanks very much.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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How To Tap Into Social Norms to Build a Strong Brand

Posted by bridget.randolph

In recent years there has been a necessary shift in the way businesses advertise themselves to consumers, thanks to the increasingly common information overload experienced by the average person.

In 1945, just after WWII, the
annual total ad spend in the United States was about $2.8 billion (that’s around $36.8 million before the adjustment for inflation). In 2013, it was around $140 billion.

Don’t forget that this is just paid media advertising; it doesn’t include the many types of earned coverage like search, social, email, supermarket displays, direct mail and so on. Alongside the growth in media spends is a growth in the sheer volume of products available, which is made possible by increasingly sophisticated technologies for sales, inventory, delivery and so on.

What does this mean? Well, simply that the strategy of ‘just buy some ads and sell the benefits’ isn’t enough anymore: you’ll be lost in the noise. How can a brand retain customers and create loyalty in an atmosphere where everyone else has a better offer? Through tapping into the psychology of social relationships.


Imagine that you are at home for Thanksgiving, and your mother has pulled out all the stops to lovingly craft the most delicious, intricate dinner ever known to man. You and your family have enjoyed a wonderful afternoon of socializing and snacking on leftovers and watching football, and now it’s time to leave. As you hug your parents goodbye, you take out your wallet. “How much do I owe you for all the love and time you put into this wonderful afternoon?” you ask. “$100 for the food? here, have $50 more as a thank you for the great hospitality!” How would your mother respond to such an offer? I don’t know about your mother, but my mom would be deeply offended.

New scenario: You’ve gone to a restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s the most delicious dinner you’ve ever had, the atmosphere is great with the football playing in the background, and best of all, your server is attentive, warm, and maternal. You feel right at home. At the end of the meal, you give her a hug and thank her for the delicious meal before leaving. She calls the cops and has you arrested for a dine-and-dash.

And herein lies the difference between social norms and market norms.

Social norms vs. market norms

The Thanksgiving dinner example is one which I’ve borrowed from a book by Dan Ariely,
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions. Ariely discusses two ways in which humans interact: social norms and market norms.


Social norms
, as Ariely explains, “are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required.” Examples would be: helping a friend move house, babysitting your grandchild, having your parents over for dinner. There is an implied reciprocity on some level but it is not instantaneous nor is it expected that the action will be repaid on a financial level. These are the sort of relationships and interactions we expect to have with friends and family.


Market norms
, on the other hand, are about the exchange of resources and in particular, money. Examples of this type of interaction would be any type of business transaction where goods or services are exchanged for money: wages, prices, rents, interest, and cost-and-benefit. These are the sort of relationships and interactions we expect to have with businesses.

I’ve drawn you a very rough illustration – it may not be the most aesthetically pleasing visual, but it gets the point across:

Market norms come into play any time money enters into the equation, sometimes counter-intuitively! Ariely gives the example of a group of lawyers who were approached by the AARP and asked whether they would provide legal services to needy retirees at a drastically discounted rate of $30/hour. The lawyers said no. From a market norms perspective, the exchange didn’t make sense. Later the same lawyers were asked whether they would consider donating their time free of charge to needy retirees. The vast majority of the lawyers said yes. The difference is that, when no money changes hands, the exchange shifts from a poor-value market exchange to an altruistic and therefore high-value social exchange. It is a strange psychological quirk that ‘once market norms enter our considerations, the social norms depart.’

Mixed signals: when social and market norms collide

In a book called
Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout (originally published in 1981), the authors describe the 1950s as the ‘product era’ of advertising, when ‘advertising people focused their attention on product features and customer benefits.’ It was all about the unique selling proposition (USP).


In this case, the USP is mildness: “not one single case of throat irritation!” (image source)

However, as the sheer volume of products on the market increased, it became more difficult to sell a product simply by pointing out the benefits. As Ries and Trout put it, ‘Your “better mousetrap” was quickly followed by two more just like it. Both claiming to be better than the first one.’

They describe the next phase of advertising (which hit its peak in the 1960s and 70s and which we can probably all relate to if we watch Mad Men) as the ‘image era’, pioneered by David Ogilvy. In this period, successful campaigns sold the reputation, or ‘image’ of a brand and a product rather than its features. Ries and Trout quote Ogilvy as saying that ‘Every advertisement is a long-term investment in the image of a brand’. Examples include Hathaway shirts and Rolls-Royce.

Rather than the product benefits, this ad focuses on the ‘image’ of the man who smokes Viceroys: “Viceroy has a thinking man’s filter and a smoking man’s taste. (image source)

But yet again, as more and more brands imitate the strategy of these successful campaigns, the space gets more crowded and the consumer becomes more jaded and these techniques become less effective.

According to Ries and Trout, this brought the world of advertising into the ‘positioning era’ of the 80s, which is where they positioned (hehe) themselves. As they described this, “To succeed in our overcommunicated society, a company must create a position in the prospect’s mind, a position that takes into consideration not only a company’s own strengths and weaknesses, but those of its competitors as well.”

This one’s all about positioning Winston’s in opposition to competitors: as the brand with real taste, as opposed to other brands which ‘promise taste’ but fail to deliver. (image source)

And yet, despite this evolution of advertising strategy over the course of the 20th century, all of these different approaches are ultimately based on market norms. The ‘product era’ sells you features and benefits in exchange for money; the ‘image era’ sells you on an image and a lifestyle in exchange for money, and the ‘positioning era’ sells you on why a particular company is the right one to supply your needs in exchange for money.

Social norms and loyalty


When does cheap not win?
When it comes to social norms. Social norms are about relationships, community and loyalty. If your sister is getting married, you don’t do a cost benefit analysis to decide whether or not you should go to her wedding or whether the food will be better and the travel cheaper if you go to your next door neighbor’s BBQ instead. If anything, it’s the opposite: some people take it to such an extreme that they will go into massive debt to attend friends’ weddings and bring lavish gifts. That is certainly not a decision based on monetary considerations.

Therefore, if the average brand wants to get out of the vicious cycle of undercutting competitors in order to gain business, they need to start focusing on relationships and community building instead of ‘SUPER CHEAP BEST LOW LOW PRICES!!®’ and sneaky upsells at the point of sale. This is something my colleague
Tim Allen spoke about in a presentation called “Make Me Love Your Brand, Not Just Tolerate It”. And this is what a large number of recent ‘advertising success stories’ are based on and it’s the whole premise behind many of the more recent trends in marketing: email marketing, personalization, SMS marketing, good social media marketing, and so on.

Some of the most popular brands are the ones which are able to find the perfect balance between:

  • a friendly, warm relationship with customers and potential customers, which also often includes a fun, personal tone of voice (the ‘brand personality’) – in these interactions there is often an offering of something to the customer without an expectation of instant payback, and
  • a strong product which they offer at a good price with good ‘market’ benefits like free returns and so on.

One example of this is John Lewis, who have good customer service policies around returns etc but also offer free perks to their shoppers, like the maternity room where breastfeeding mothers can relax. One of my colleagues mentioned that, as a new mother, his girlfriend always prefers to shop at John Lewis over other competitor stores for that very reason. Now if this is purely a convenience factor for her, and after her child is older she stops shopping at John Lewis in favor of a cheaper option, you could argue that this is less of a social interaction and more market influenced (in some sense it serves as a service differentiator between JL and their customers). However, if after she no longer requires the service, she continues to shop there because she wants to reciprocate their past support of her as a breastfeeding mother, that pushes it more firmly into the realm of the social.

Another thing John Lewis do for their fans is the annual Christmas ad, which (much like the 
Coca-Cola Santa truck in the UK) has become something which people look forward to each year because it’s a heartwarming little story more than just an ad for a home and garden store. Their 2012 ad was my favorite (and a lot of other people’s too, with over 4.5 million Youtube views).

But usually anytime a brand ‘do something nice’ for no immediate monetary benefit, it counts as a ‘social’ interaction – a classic example is
Sainsbury’s response to the little girl who wrote to them about ‘tiger bread’.

Some of my other favorite examples of social norm interactions by brands are:

The catch is, you have to be careful and keep the ‘mix’ of social and market norms consistent.

Ariely uses the example of a bank when describing the danger of bringing social norms into a business relationship:

“What happens if a customer’s check bounces? If the relationship is based on market norms, the bank charges a fee, and the customer shakes it off. Business is business. While the fee is annoying, it’s nonetheless acceptable. In a social relationship, however, a hefty late fee–rather than a friendly call from the manager or an automatic fee waiver–is not only a relationship-killer; it’s a stab in the back. Consumers will take personal offense. They’ll leave the bank angry and spend hours complaining to their friends about this awful bank.”

Richard Fergie also summed this issue up nicely in this G+ post about the recent outrage over Facebook manipulating users’ emotions; in this case, the back-stab effect was due to the fact that the implicit agreement between the users and the company about what was being ‘sold’ and therefore ‘valued’ in the exchange changed without warning.


The basic rule of thumb is that whether you choose to emphasize market norms or social norms, you can’t arbitrarily change the rules.

A side note about social media and brands: Act like a normal person

In a time when
the average American aged 18-64 spends 2-3 hours a day on social media, it is only logical that we would start to see brands and the advertising industry follow suit. But if this is your only strategy for building relationships and interacting with your customers socially, it’s not good enough. Instead, in this new ‘relationship era’ of advertising (as I’ve just pretentiously dubbed it, in true Ries-and-Trout fashion), the brands who will successfully merge market and social norms in their advertising will be the brands which are able to develop the sort of reciprocal relationships that we see with our friends and family. I wrote a post over on the Distilled blog about what social media marketers can learn from weddings. That was just one example, but the TL;DR is: as a brand, you still need to use social media the way that normal people do. Otherwise you risk becoming a Condescending Corporate Brand on Facebook. On Twitter too.

Social norms and authenticity: Why you actually do need to care

Another way in which brands tap into social norms are through their brand values. My colleague
Hannah Smith talked about this in her post on The Future of Marketing. Moz themselves are a great example of a brand with strong values: for them it’s TAGFEE. Hannah also gives the examples of Innocent Drinks (sustainability), Patagonia (environmentalism) and Nike (whose strapline ‘Find Your Greatness’ is about their brand values of everyone being able to ‘achieve their own defining moment of greatness’).

Havas Media have been doing some interesting work around trying to ‘measure’ brand sentiment with something call the
‘Meaningful Brands Index’ (MBi), based on how much a brand is perceived as making a meaningful difference in people’s lives, both for personal wellbeing and collective wellbeing. Whether or not you like their approach, they have some interesting stats: apparently only 20% of brands worldwide are seen to ‘meaningfully positively impact peoples’ lives’, but the brands that rank high on the MBi also tend to outperform other brands significantly (120%).

Now there may be a ‘correlation vs causation’ argument here, and I don’t have space to explore it. But regardless of whether you like the MBi as a metric or not, countless case studies demonstrate that it’s valuable for a brand to have strong brand values.

There are two basic rules of thumb when it comes to choosing brand values:

1) I
t has to be relevant to what you do. If a bingo site is running an environmentalism campaign, it might seem a bit weird and it won’t resonate well with your audience. You also need to watch out for accidental irony. For example, McDonalds and Coca-Cola came in for some flak when they sponsored the Olympics, due to their reputation as purveyors of unhealthy food/drink products.

Nike’s #FindYourGreatness campaign, on the other hand, is a great example of how to tie in your values with your product. Another example is one of our clients at Distilled, SimplyBusiness, a business insurance company whose brand values include being ‘the small business champion’. This has informed their content strategy, leading them to develop in-depth resources for small businesses, and it has served them very well.

2) I
t can’t be so closely connected to what you do that it comes across as self-serving. For example, NatWest’s NatYes campaign claims to be about enabling people to become homeowners, but ultimately (in no small part thanks to the scary legal compliance small print about foreclosure) the authenticity of the message is undermined.

The most important thing when it comes to brand values: it’s very easy for people to be cynical about brands and whether they ‘care’. Havas did a survey that found that
only 32% of people feel that brands communicate honestly about commitments and promises. So choose values that you do feel strongly about and follow through even if it means potentially alienating some people. The recent OKCupid vs Mozilla Firefox episode is an illustration of standing up for brand values (regardless of where you stand on this particular example, it got them a lot of positive publicity).

Key takeaways

So what can we take away from these basic principles of social norms and market norms? If you want to build a brand based on social relationships, here’s 3 things to remember.

1)
Your brand needs to provide something besides just a low price. In order to have a social relationship with your customers, your brand needs a personality, a tone of voice, and you need to do nice things for your customers without the expectation of immediate payback.

2)
You need to keep your mix of social and market norms consistent at every stage of the customer lifecycle. Don’t pull the rug out from under your loyal fans by hitting them with surprise costs after they checkout or other tricks. And don’t give new customers significantly better benefits. What you gain in the short term you will lose in the long term resentment they will feel about having been fooled. Instead, treat them with transparency and fairness and be responsive to customer service issues.

3)
You need brand values that make sense for your brand and that you (personally and as a company) really believe in. Don’t have values that don’t relate to your core business. Don’t have values which are obviously self-serving. Don’t be accidentally ironic like McDonalds.

Have you seen examples of brands building customer relationships based on social norms? Did it work? Do you do this type of relationship-building for your brand?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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