The Importance of Being Different: Creating a Competitive Advantage With Your USP

Posted by TrentonGreener

“The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.”

While this quote has been credited to everyone from Francis Phillip Wernig, under the pseudonym Alan Ashley-Pitt, to Einstein himself, the powerful message does not lose its substance no matter whom you choose to credit. There is a very important yet often overlooked effect of not heeding this warning. One which can be applied to all aspects of life. From love and happiness, to business and marketing, copying what your competitors are doing and failing to forge your own path can be a detrimental mistake.

While as marketers we are all acutely aware of the importance of differentiation, we’ve been trained for the majority of our lives to seek out the norm.

We spend the majority of our adolescent lives trying desperately not to be different. No one has ever been picked on for being too normal or not being different enough. We would beg our parents to buy us the same clothes little Jimmy or little Jamie wore. We’d want the same backpack and the same bike everyone else had. With the rise of the cell phone and later the smartphone, on hands and knees, we begged and pleaded for our parents to buy us the Razr, the StarTAC (bonus points if you didn’t have to Google that one), and later the iPhone. Did we truly want these things? Yes, but not just because they were cutting edge and nifty. We desired them because the people around us had them. We didn’t want to be the last to get these devices. We didn’t want to be different.

Thankfully, as we mature we begin to realize the fallacy that is trying to be normal. We start to become individuals and learn to appreciate that being different is often seen as beautiful. However, while we begin to celebrate being different on a personal level, it does not always translate into our business or professional lives.

We unconsciously and naturally seek out the normal, and if we want to be different—truly different in a way that creates an advantage—we have to work for it.

The truth of the matter is, anyone can be different. In fact, we all are very different. Even identical twins with the same DNA will often have starkly different personalities. As a business, the real challenge lies in being different in a way that is relevant, valuable to your audience, and creates an advantage.

“Strong products and services are highly differentiated from all other products and services. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.” – Austin McGhie, Brand Is a Four Letter Word

Let’s explore the example of Revel Hotel & Casino. Revel is a 70-story luxury casino in Atlantic City that was built in 2012. There is simply not another casino of the same class in Atlantic City, but there might be a reason for this. Even if you’re not familiar with the city, a quick jump onto Atlantic City’s tourism website reveals that of the five hero banners that rotate, not one specifically mentions gambling, but three reference the boardwalk. This is further illustrated when exploring their internal linking structure. The beaches, boardwalk, and shopping all appear before a single mention of casinos. There simply isn’t as much of a market for high-end gamblers in the Atlantic City area; in the states Las Vegas serves that role. So while Revel has a unique advantage, their ability to attract customers to their resort has not resulted in profitable earnings reports. In Q2 2012, Revel had a gross operating loss of $35.177M, and in Q3 2012 that increased to $36.838M.

So you need to create a unique selling proposition (also known as unique selling point and commonly referred to as a USP), and your USP needs to be valuable to your audience and create a competitive advantage. Sounds easy enough, right? Now for the kicker. That advantage needs to be as sustainable as physically possible over the long term.

“How long will it take our competitors to duplicate our advantage?”

You really need to explore this question and the possible solutions your competitors could utilize to play catch-up or duplicate what you’ve done. Look no further than Google vs Bing to see this in action. No company out there is going to just give up because your USP is so much better; most will pivot or adapt in some way.

Let’s look at a Seattle-area coffee company of which you may or may not be familiar. Starbucks has tried quite a few times over the years to level-up their tea game with limited success, but the markets that Starbucks has really struggled to break into are the pastry, breads, dessert, and food markets.

Other stores had more success in these markets, and they thought that high-quality teas and bakery items were the USPs that differentiated them from the Big Bad Wolf that is Starbucks. And while they were right to think that their brick house would save them from the Big Bad Wolf for some time, this fable doesn’t end with the Big Bad Wolf in a boiling pot.

Never underestimate your competitor’s ability to be agile, specifically when overcoming a competitive disadvantage.

If your competitor can’t beat you by making a better product or service internally, they can always choose to buy someone who can.

After months of courting, on June 4th, 2012 Starbucks announced that they had come to an agreement to purchase La Boulange in order to “elevate core food offerings and build a premium, artisanal bakery brand.” If you’re a small-to-medium sized coffee shop and/or bakery that even indirectly competed with Starbucks, a new challenger approaches. And while those tea shops momentarily felt safe within the brick walls that guarded their USP, on the final day of that same year, the Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew a stack of cash all over Teavana. Making Teavana a wholly-owned subsidiary of Starbucks for the low, low price of $620M.

Sarcasm aside, this does a great job of illustrating the ability of companies—especially those with deep pockets—to be agile, and demonstrates that they often have an uncanny ability to overcome your company’s competitive advantage. In seven months, Starbucks went from a minor player in these markets to having all the tools they need to dominate tea and pastries. Have you tried their raspberry pound cake? It’s phenomenal.

Why does this matter to me?

Ok, we get it. We need to be different, and in a way that is relevant, valuable, defensible, and sustainable. But I’m not the CEO, or even the CMO. I cannot effect change on a company level; why does this matter to me?

I’m a firm believer that you effect change no matter what the name plate on your desk may say. Sure, you may not be able to call an all-staff meeting today and completely change the direction of your company tomorrow, but you can effect change on the parts of the business you do touch. No matter your title or area of responsibility, you need to know your company’s, client’s, or even a specific piece of content’s USP, and you need to ensure it is applied liberally to all areas of your work.

Look at this example SERP for “Mechanics”:

While yes, this search is very likely to be local-sensitive, that doesn’t mean you can’t stand out. Every single AdWords result, save one, has only the word “Mechanics” in the headline. (While the top of page ad is pulling description line 1 into the heading, the actual headline is still only “Mechanic.”) But even the one headline that is different doesn’t do a great job of illustrating the company’s USP. Mechanics at home? Whose home? Mine or theirs? I’m a huge fan of Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” and in this scenario there are too many questions I need answered before I’m willing to click through. “Mechanics; We Come To You” or even “Traveling Mechanics” illustrates this point much more clearly, and still fits within the 25-character limit for the headline.

If you’re an AdWords user, no matter how big or small your monthly spend may be, take a look at your top 10-15 keywords by volume and evaluate how well you’re differentiating yourself from the other brands in your industry. Test ad copy that draws attention to your USP and reap the rewards.

Now while this is simply an AdWords text ad example, the same concept can be applied universally across all of marketing.

Title tags & meta descriptions

As we alluded to above, not only do companies have USPs, but individual pieces of content can, and should, have their own USP. Use your title tag and meta description to illustrate what differentiates your piece of content from the competition and do so in a way that attracts the searcher’s click. Use your USP to your advantage. If you have already established a strong brand within a specific niche, great! Now use it to your advantage. Though it’s much more likely that you are competing against a strong brand, and in these scenarios ask yourself, “What makes our content different from theirs?” The answer you come up with is your content’s USP. Call attention to that in your title tag and meta description, and watch the CTR climb.

I encourage you to hop into your own site’s analytics and look at your top 10-15 organic landing pages and see how well you differentiate yourself. Even if you’re hesitant to negatively affect your inbound gold mines by changing the title tags, run a test and change up your meta description to draw attention to your USP. In an hour’s work, you just may make the change that pushes you a little further up those SERPs.

Branding

Let’s break outside the world of digital marketing and look at the world of branding. Tom’s Shoes competes against some heavy hitters in Nike, Adidas, Reebok, and Puma just to name a few. While Tom’s can’t hope to compete against the marketing budgets of these companies in a fair fight, they instead chose to take what makes them different, their USP, and disseminate it every chance they get. They have labeled themselves “The One for One” company. It’s in their homepage’s title tag, in every piece of marketing they put out, and it smacks you in the face when you land on their site. They even use the call-to-action “Get Good Karma” throughout their site.

Now as many of us may know, partially because of the scandal it created in late 2013, Tom’s is not actually a non-profit organization. No matter how you feel about the matter, this marketing strategy has created a positive effect on their bottom line. Fast Company conservatively estimated their revenues in 2013 at $250M, with many estimates being closer to the $300M mark. Not too bad of a slice of the pie when competing against the powerhouses Tom’s does.

Wherever you stand on this issue, Tom’s Shoes has done a phenomenal job of differentiating their brand from the big hitters in their industry.

Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get.

This is worth repeating. Know your USP and disseminate it every chance you get, whether that be in title tags, ad copy, on-page copy, branding, or any other segment of your marketing campaigns. Online or offline, be different. And remember the quote that we started with, “The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.”

The amount of marketing knowledge that can be taken from this one simple statement is astounding. Heed the words, stand out from the crowd, and you will have success.

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Get Unbeatable Insights into Local SEO: Buy the LocalUp Advanced Video Bundle

Posted by EricaMcGillivray

Missed LocalUp Advanced 2015? Forgot to take notes, or just want to relive the action? You can now 
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Get a preview of what you’ll learn and hear what attendees had to say about how much they enjoyed it:

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In addition to the videos, you also get the slide decks. Follow along and go back as you start implementing these tips into your strategy and work. You can watch these videos and download them to any device you use: desktop, laptop, tablet, and mobile.


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Getting Local Keyword Research and On-page Optimization Right with Mary Bowling
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Leveraging Panda to Get Out of Product Feed Jail

Posted by MichaelC

This is a story about Panda, customer service, and differentiating your store from others selling the same products.

Many e-commerce websites get the descriptions, specifications, and imagery for products they sell from feeds or databases provided by the
manufacturers. The manufacturers might like this, as they control how their product is described and shown. However, it does their retailers
no good when they are trying to rank for searches for those products and they’ve got the exact same content as every other retailer. If the content
in the feed is thin, then you’ll have pages with…well….thin content. And if there’s a lot of content for the products, then you’ll have giant blocks of content that
Panda might spot as being the same as they’ve seen on many other sites. To throw salt on the wound, if the content is really crappy, badly written,
or downright wrong, then the retailers’ sites will look low-quality to Panda and users as well.

Many webmasters see Panda as a type of Google penalty—but it’s not, really. Panda is a collection of measurements Google
is taking of your web pages to try and give your pages a rating on how happy users are likely to be with those pages.
It’s not perfect, but then again—neither is your website.

Many SEO folks (including me) tend to focus on the kinds of tactical and structural things you can do to make Panda see
your web pages as higher quality: things like adding big, original images, interactive content like videos and maps, and
lots and lots and lots and lots of text. These are all good tactics, but let’s step back a bit and look at a specific
example to see WHY Panda was built to do this, and from that, what we can do as retailers to enrich the content we have
for e-commerce products where our hands are a bit tied—we’re getting a feed of product info from the manufacturers, the same
as every other retailer of those products.

I’m going to use a real-live example that I suffered through about a month ago. I was looking for a replacement sink
stopper for a bathroom sink. I knew the brand, but there wasn’t a part number on the part I needed to replace. After a few Google
searches, I think I’ve found it on Amazon:


Don’t you wish online shopping was always this exciting?

What content actually teaches the customer

All righty… my research has shown me that there are standard sizes for plug stoppers. In fact, I initially ordered a
“universal fit sink stopper.” Which didn’t fit. Then I found 3 standard diameters, and 5 or 6 standard lengths.
No problem…I possess that marvel of modern tool chests, a tape measure…so I measure the part I have that I need to replace. I get about 1.5″ x 5″.
So let’s scroll down to the product details to see if it’s a match:

Kohler sink stopper product info from hell

Whoa. 1.2 POUNDS? This sink stopper must be made of
Ununoctium.
The one in my hand weighs about an ounce. But the dimensions
are way off as well: a 2″ diameter stopper isn’t going to fit, and mine needs to be at least an inch longer.

I scroll down to the product description…maybe there’s more detail there, maybe the 2″ x 2″ is the box or something.

I've always wanted a sink stopper designed for long long

Well, that’s less than helpful, with a stupid typo AND incorrect capitalization AND a missing period at the end.
Doesn’t build confidence in the company’s quality control.

Looking at the additional info section, maybe this IS the right part…the weight quoted in there is about right:

Maybe this is my part after all

Where else customers look for answers

Next I looked at the questions and answers bit, which convinced me that it PROBABLY was the right part:

Customers will answer the question if the retailer won't...sometimes.

If I was smart, I would have covered my bets by doing what a bunch of other customers also did: buy a bunch of different parts,
and surely one of them will fit. Could there
possibly was a clearer signal that the product info was lacking than this?

If you can't tell which one to buy, buy them all!

In this case, that was probably smarter than spending another 1/2 hour of my time snooping around online. But in general, people
aren’t going to be willing to buy THREE of something just to make sure they get the right one. This cheap part was an exception.

So, surely SOMEONE out there has the correct dimensions of this part on their site—so I searched for the part number I saw on the Amazon
listing. But as it turned out, that crappy description and wrong weight and dimensions were on every site I found…because they came from
the manufacturer.

Better Homes and Gardens...but not better description.

A few of the sites had edited out the “designed for long long” bit, but apart from that, they were all the same.

What sucks for the customer is an opportunity for you

Many, many retailers are in this same boat—they get their product info from the manufacturer, and if the data sucks in their feed,
it’ll suck on their site. Your page looks weak to both users and to Panda, and it looks the same as everybody else’s page for that product…to
both users and to Panda. So (a) you won’t rank very well, and (b) if you DO manage to get a customer to that page, it’s not as likely to convert
to a sale.

What can you do to improve on this? Here’s a few tactics to consider.

1. Offer your own additional description and comments

Add a new field to your CMS for your own write-ups on products, and when you discover issues like the above, you can add your own information—and
make it VERY clear what’s the manufacturer’s stock info and what you’ve added (that’s VALUE-ADDED) as well. My client
Sports Car Market magazine does this with their collector car auction reports in their printed magazine:
they list the auction company’s description of the car, then their reporter’s assessment of the car. This is why I buy the magazine and not the auction catalog.

2. Solicit questions

Be sure you solicit questions on every product page—your customers will tell you what’s wrong or what important information is missing. Sure,
you’ve got millions of products to deal with, but what the customers are asking about (and your sales volume of course) will help you prioritize as well as
find the problems opportunities.

Amazon does a great job of enabling this, but in this case, I used the Feedback option to update the product info,
and got back a total
bull-twaddle email from the seller about how the dimensions are in the product description thank you for shopping with us, bye-bye.
I tried to help them, for free, and they shat on me.

3. But I don’t get enough traffic to get the questions

Don’t have enough site volume to get many customer requests? No problem, the information is out there for you on Amazon :-).
Take your most important products, and look them up on Amazon, and see what questions are being asked—then answer those ONLY on your own site.

4. What fits with what?

Create fitment/cross-reference charts for products.
You probably have in-house knowledge of what products fit/are compatible with what other products.
Just because YOU know a certain accessory fits all makes and models, because it’s some industry-standard size, doesn’t mean that the customer knows this.

If there’s a particular way to measure a product so you get the correct size, explain that (with photos of what you’re measuring, if it seems
at all complicated). I’m getting a new front door for my house. 

  • How big is the door I need? 
  • Do I measure the width of the door itself, or the width of the
    opening (probably 1/8″ wider)? 
  • Or if it’s pre-hung, do I measure the frame too? Is it inswing or outswing?
  • Right or left hinged…am I supposed to
    look at the door from inside the house or outside to figure this out? 

If you’re a door seller, this is all obvious stuff,
but it wasn’t obvious to me, and NOT having the info on a website means (a) I feel stupid, and (b) I’m going to look at your competitors’ sites
to see if they will explain it…and maybe I’ll find a door on THEIR site I like better anyway.

Again, prioritize based on customer requests.

5. Provide your own photos and measurements

If examples of the physical products are available to you, take your own photos, and take your own measurements.

In fact, take your OWN photo of YOURSELF taking the measurement—so the user can see exactly what part of the product you’re measuring.
In the photo below, you can see that I’m measuring the diameter of the stopper, NOT the hole in the sink, NOT the stopper plus the rubber gasket.
And no, Kohler, it’s NOT 2″ in diameter…by a long shot.

Don't just give the measurements, SHOW the measurements

Keep in mind, you shouldn’t have to tear apart your CMS to do any of this. You can put your additions in a new database table, just tied to the
core product content by SKU. In the page template code for the product page, you can check your database to see if you have any of your “extra bits” to display
alongside the feed content, and this way keep it separate from the core product catalog code. This will make updates to the CMS/product catalog less painful as well.

Fixing your content doesn’t have to be all that difficult, nor expensive

At this point, you’re probably thinking “hey, but I’ve got 1.2 million SKUs, and if I were to do this, it’d take me 20 years to update all of them.”
FINE. Don’t update all of them. Prioritize, based on factors like what you sell the most of, what you make the best margin on, what customers
ask questions about the most, etc. Maybe concentrate on your top 5% in terms of sales, and do those first. Take all that money you used to spend
buying spammy links every month, and spend it instead on junior employees or interns doing the product measurements, extra photos, etc.

And don’t be afraid to spend a little effort on a low value product, if it’s one that frequently gets questions from customers.
Simple things can make a life-long fan of the customer. I once needed to replace a dishwasher door seal, and didn’t know if I needed special glue,
special tools, how to cut it to fit with or without overlap, etc.
I found a video on how to do the replacement on
RepairClinic.com. So easy!
They got my business for the $10 seal, of course…but now I order my $50 fridge water filter from them every six months as well.

Benefits to your conversion rate

Certainly the tactics we’ve talked about will improve your conversion rate from visitors to purchasers. If JUST ONE of those sites I looked at for that damn sink stopper
had the right measurement (and maybe some statement about how the manufacturer’s specs above are actually incorrect, we measured, etc.), I’d have stopped right there
and bought from that site.

What does this have to do with Panda?

But, there’s a Panda benefit here too. You’ve just added a bunch of additional, unique text to your site…and maybe a few new unique photos as well.
Not only are you going to convert better, but you’ll probably rank better too.

If you’re NOT Amazon, or eBay, or Home Depot, etc., then Panda is your secret weapon to help you rank against those other sites whose backlink profiles are
stronger than
carbon fibre (that’s a really cool video, by the way).
If you saw my
Whiteboard Friday on Panda optimization, you’ll know that
Panda tuning can overcome incredible backlink profile deficits.

It’s go time

We’re talking about tactics that are time-consuming, yes—but relatively easy to implement, using relatively inexpensive staff (and in some
cases, your customers are doing some of the work for you).
And it’s something you can roll out a product at a time.
You’ll be doing things that really DO make your site a better experience for the user…we’re not just trying to trick Panda’s measurements.

  1. Your pages will rank better, and bring more traffic.
  2. Your pages will convert better, because users won’t leave your site, looking elsewhere for answers to their questions.
  3. Your customers will be more loyal, because you were able to help them when nobody else bothered.

Don’t be held hostage by other peoples’ crappy product feeds. Enhance your product information with your own info and imagery.
Like good link-building and outreach, it takes time and effort, but both Panda and your site visitors will reward you for it.

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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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The New Link Building Survey 2014 – Results

Posted by JamesAgate

Many of you may have seen Skyrocket SEO’s Link Building Survey results that we published here on Moz around this same time last year. The reception was fantastic, so we decided to push ahead with turning this into an annual series to see how this strand of the industry is developing and evolving over time.

Firstly, “link building”…

Yep, we’ve not changed the name to a “content marketing survey” or “inbound link acquisition survey;” we still feel link building is a vital part of an SEOs arsenal of tactics, and therefore it deserves its own survey.

As a company we’re investing just as much in link building for our clients (granted, we’ve adapted what we are doing), but the fact remains that if you want to score big with decent organic search visibility then you need links.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get down to the details:

Who took the survey?

A massive thank you to the 315 or so people who took the survey. That number is slightly down from last yeah, which I feel is partly due to fewer people considering link building to be a part of their day-to-day roles. I’d argue that’s a missed opportunity, and this year we had a few duplicate entries and submissions that needed a bit of tidying up, so we trimmed it back to these 315 submissions.

The makeup of the respondents was broadly similar to last year, as expected, although based on user feedback from our inaugural survey, we added a few more categories for respondents to self-classify—so it is hard to make specific comparisons.

How much does your company spend on link building per month?

In the 2013 survey, 10% of respondents said their company spent $50k+ per month on link building, so it appears that the upper limit to link building spend may have decreased slightly across the industry.

That being said, there now appears to be a much larger number of companies in the $10-$50k per month bracket when you compare this year’s 37% with last year’s 11%.

I would attribute the changes year-on-year to two factors;

  • Reclassification of the term “link building:” Many companies have shifted budget that they would previously classified as link building budget into content projects that more than likely still have an impact on link building efforts.
  • Recognition of opportunity: Based on our own experiences we see a number of website owners and businesses pushing harder with their content promotion and link building as they recognise an opportunity to invest when their competitors are running scared.

Warren Buffett once said “Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” Based on conversations alone that I’ve had with a wide range of businesses, many are now fearful when it comes to building links. In fact, we gathered some data later in the survey that revealed that one of the biggest challenges people face is not knowing which links will help and which will harm them. Google’s widespread action against websites (and dare I say it webmaster propaganda) has had a dramatic impact on some people to the point of paralysis.

There are clear opportunities that, with a sound strategy, can be seized in today’s market.

You can
build links like it’s 1999 for a microsite or second level property, keep it super-clean and identify link opportunities that would be valuable irrespective of Google, or somewhere in between those extremes. The fact is the links still form the backbone of the internet and of Google’s algorithm and that isn’t going to change for a very long time.

What percentage of your overall SEO budget is allocated toward building links?

Thanks to
John-Henry Scherck for this one as he made the suggestion following the 2013 survey that having data on the percentage would be really interesting. Looking back we don’t have a point of comparison but not of course moving forward we will have so we should get a clearer picture of whether online marketing budgets are just increasing in general (and therefore link building gets allocated the same percentage but of a bigger pie) or whether folks are seeing the value from building links and therefore allocating a larger percentage of the same sized pie to link building activities.

Would you say you’ve increased or decreased your spend on link building over the past 12 months?

This aligns with our data on more people entering the $10-$50k per month investment bracket this year:

Why the increase/decrease in spending?

We asked people why they decided to increase or decrease their spending on link building over the past 12 months.

Responses could be categorized into the following areas:

Common reason for increases:

  • Increased costs related to moving away from older style and often “cheaper” link building
  • Increased costs related to production/creativity
  • Good links are just as important as ever; links still move the needle in terms of search engine visibility and performance therefore it makes sense to increase investment in this area.

Common reasons for decreases:

  • Moving link building budget into content marketing projects (to be fair, this budget will probably indirectly fund link acquisition of some kind even if it is seen as a secondary goal for the content campaign.)
  • We wanted to scale back and assess the impact that Google’s manual actions etc have on our website.

In the next 12 months, will you look to increase or decrease your spend on link building?

Why the planned increase/decrease in spending?

  • Link building continues to get more expensive
  • To raise the bar on existing efforts, and to beat competitors with increasingly sophisticated content assets
  • Unsure where to invest/which links are working so concentrating budget into other activities.

Which link building tactics do you utilise most often?

(Numbers listed are votes rather than percentages)

When we compare with responses from the 2013 survey, there is a clear shift towards content-led initiatives and a reduction in some tactics for example close to 50% said in 2013 that guest blogging was their staple tactic, in 2014 fewer than 15% listed it as one of their staple activities.

Another interesting bit of data is the fact that paid links have seen somewhat of a resurgence in popularity, presumably as companies look for tactics where they can maintain greater control. In 2013, just 5% listed paid links as their staple linking tactic whereas in 2014 over 13% reported paid linking and blog networks as one of their main link building tactics.

What is currently your biggest link building challenge?

  • Getting links to pages that aren’t particularly linkworthy (money pages)
  • Lack of scalability (time, process, training, spreading time between clients)
  • Avoiding Google penalties

These are similar challenges to those reported in 2013 in the sense that there is still concern over which links are helping and harming organic search performance as well as difficulties relating to processes and the lack of scalability.

The interesting thing is that SEO is full of challenges so as soon as one is overcome, the next appears. In 2013, 28% of respondents said that “finding link prospects” was a key challenge but this year not a mention of link prospects being an issue. This arguably suggests that we as an industry were adjusting to the “new world” back in 2013 and that now we have advanced our capabilities enough for this to now longer be the primary challenge in our day to day work. Now the main problem doesn’t seem to be getting links as such but more about getting links into the pages that we all need to rank to stay in business … the money pages.

Which link building tactics do you believe to be most effective?

(numbers below are “votes” rather than percentages)

Which link building tactics do you believe to be least effective?

(numbers below are “votes” rather than percentages)

Which link building tactics do you consider to be harmful to a site?

(numbers below are “votes” rather than percentages)

See the complete visual below:

Thank you for everyone who took part in the survey! See you all again next year.

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