How Much Has Link Building Changed in Recent Years?

Posted by Paddy_Moogan

I get asked this question a lot. It’s mainly asked by people who are considering buying my link building book and want to know whether it’s still up to date. This is understandable given that the first edition was published in February 2013 and our industry has a deserved reputation for always changing.

I find myself giving the same answer, even though I’ve been asked it probably dozens of times in the last two years—”not that much”. I don’t think this is solely due to the book itself standing the test of time, although I’ll happily take a bit of credit for that 🙂 I think it’s more a sign of our industry as a whole not changing as much as we’d like to think.

I started to question myself and if I was right and honestly, it’s one of the reasons it has taken me over two years to release the second edition of the book.

So I posed this question to a group of friends not so long ago, some via email and some via a Facebook group. I was expecting to be called out by many of them because my position was that in reality, it hasn’t actually changed that much. The thing is, many of them agreed and the conversations ended with a pretty long thread with lots of insights. In this post, I’d like to share some of them, share what my position is and talk about what actually has changed.

My personal view

Link building hasn’t changed as much we think it has.

The core principles of link building haven’t changed. The signals around link building have changed, but mainly around new machine learning developments that have indirectly affected what we do. One thing that has definitely changed is the mindset of SEOs (and now clients) towards link building.

I think the last big change to link building came in April 2012 when Penguin rolled out. This genuinely did change our industry and put to bed a few techniques that should never have worked so well in the first place.

Since then, we’ve seen some things change, but the core principles haven’t changed if you want to build a business that will be around for years to come and not run the risk of being hit by a link related Google update. For me, these principles are quite simple:

  • You need to deserve links – either an asset you create or your product
  • You need to put this asset in front of a relevant audience who have the ability to share it
  • You need consistency – one new asset every year is unlikely to cut it
  • Anything that scales is at risk

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into all of this and I’ll talk about how this relates to link building.

The typical mindset for building links has changed

I think that most SEOs are coming round to the idea that you can’t get away with building low quality links any more, not if you want to build a sustainable, long-term business. Spammy link building still works in the short-term and I think it always will, but it’s much harder than it used to be to sustain websites that are built on spam. The approach is more “churn and burn” and spammers are happy to churn through lots of domains and just make a small profit on each one before moving onto another.

For everyone else, it’s all about the long-term and not putting client websites at risk.

This has led to many SEOs embracing different forms of link building and generally starting to use content as an asset when it comes to attracting links. A big part of me feels that it was actually Penguin in 2012 that drove the rise of content marketing amongst SEOs, but that’s a post for another day…! For today though, this goes some way towards explain the trend we see below.

Slowly but surely, I’m seeing clients come to my company already knowing that low quality link building isn’t what they want. It’s taken a few years after Penguin for it to filter down to client / business owner level, but it’s definitely happening. This is a good thing but unfortunately, the main reason for this is that most of them have been burnt in the past by SEO companies who have built low quality links without giving thought to building good quality ones too.

I have no doubt that it’s this change in mindset which has led to trends like this:

The thing is, I don’t think this was by choice.

Let’s be honest. A lot of us used the kind of link building tactics that Google no longer like because they worked. I don’t think many SEOs were under the illusion that it was genuinely high quality stuff, but it worked and it was far less risky to do than it is today. Unless you were super-spammy, the low-quality links just worked.

Fast forward to a post-Penguin world, things are far more risky. For me, it’s because of this that we see the trends like the above. As an industry, we had the easiest link building methods taken away from us and we’re left with fewer options. One of the main options is content marketing which, if you do it right, can lead to good quality links and importantly, the types of links you won’t be removing in the future. Get it wrong and you’ll lose budget and lose the trust if your boss or client in the power of content when it comes to link building.

There are still plenty of other methods to build links and sometimes we can forget this. Just look at this epic list from Jon Cooper. Even with this many tactics still available to us, it’s hard work. Way harder than it used to be.

My summary here is that as an industry, our mindset has shifted but it certainly wasn’t a voluntary shift. If the tactics that Penguin targeted still worked today, we’d still be using them.

A few other opinions…

I definitely think too many people want the next easy win. As someone surfing the edge of what Google is bringing our way, here’s my general take—SEO, in broad strokes, is changing a lot, *but* any given change is more and more niche and impacts fewer people. What we’re seeing isn’t radical, sweeping changes that impact everyone, but a sort of modularization of SEO, where we each have to be aware of what impacts our given industries, verticals, etc.”

Dr. Pete

 

I don’t feel that techniques for acquiring links have changed that much. You can either earn them through content and outreach or you can just buy them. What has changed is the awareness of “link building” outside of the SEO community. This makes link building / content marketing much harder when pitching to journalists and even more difficult when pitching to bloggers.

“Link building has to be more integrated with other channels and struggles to work in its own environment unless supported by brand, PR and social. Having other channels supporting your link development efforts also creates greater search signals and more opportunity to reach a bigger audience which will drive a greater ROI.

Carl Hendy

 

SEO has grown up in terms of more mature staff and SEOs becoming more ingrained into businesses so there is a smarter (less pressure) approach. At the same time, SEO has become more integrated into marketing and has made marketing teams and decision makers more intelligent in strategies and not pushing for the quick win. I’m also seeing that companies who used to rely on SEO and building links have gone through IPOs and the need to build 1000s of links per quarter has rightly reduced.

Danny Denhard

Signals that surround link building have changed

There is no question about this one in my mind. I actually wrote about this last year in my previous blog post where I talked about signals such as anchor text and deep links changing over time.

Many of the people I asked felt the same, here are some quotes from them, split out by the types of signal.

Domain level link metrics

I think domain level links have become increasingly important compared with page level factors, i.e. you can get a whole site ranking well off the back of one insanely strong page, even with sub-optimal PageRank flow from that page to the rest of the site.

Phil Nottingham

I’d agree with Phil here and this is what I was getting at in my previous post on how I feel “deep links” will matter less over time. It’s not just about domain level links here, it’s just as much about the additional signals available for Google to use (more on that later).

Anchor text

I’ve never liked anchor text as a link signal. I mean, who actually uses exact match commercial keywords as anchor text on the web?

SEOs. 🙂

Sure there will be natural links like this, but honestly, I struggle with the idea that it took Google so long to start turning down the dial on commercial anchor text as a ranking signal. They are starting to turn it down though, slowly but surely. Don’t get me wrong, it still matters and it still works. But like pure link spam, the barrier is a lot more lower now in terms what of constitutes too much.

Rand feels that they matter more than we’d expect and I’d mostly agree with this statement:

Exact match anchor text links still have more power than you’d expect—I think Google still hasn’t perfectly sorted what is “brand” or “branded query” from generics (i.e. they want to start ranking a new startup like meldhome.com for “Meld” if the site/brand gets popular, but they can’t quite tell the difference between that and https://moz.com/learn/seo/redirection getting a few manipulative links that say “redirect”)

Rand Fishkin

What I do struggle with though, is that Google still haven’t figured this out and that short-term, commercial anchor text spam is still so effective. Even for a short burst of time.

I don’t think link building as a concept has changed loads—but I think links as a signal have, mainly because of filters and penalties but I don’t see anywhere near the same level of impact from coverage anymore, even against 18 months ago.

Paul Rogers

New signals have been introduced

It isn’t just about established signals changing though, there are new signals too and I personally feel that this is where we’ve seen the most change in Google algorithms in recent years—going all the way back to Panda in 2011.

With Panda, we saw a new level of machine learning where it almost felt like Google had found a way of incorporating human reaction / feelings into their algorithms. They could then run this against a website and answer questions like the ones included in this post. Things such as:

  • “Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?”
  • “Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?”
  • “Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?”

It is a touch scary that Google was able to run machine learning against answers to questions like this and write an algorithm to predict the answers for any given page on the web. They have though and this was four years ago now.

Since then, they’ve made various moves to utilize machine learning and AI to build out new products and improve their search results. For me, this was one of the biggest and went pretty unnoticed by our industry. Well, until Hummingbird came along I feel pretty sure that we have Ray Kurzweil to thank for at least some of that.

There seems to be more weight on theme/topic related to sites, though it’s hard to tell if this is mostly link based or more user/usage data based. Google is doing a good job of ranking sites and pages that don’t earn the most links but do provide the most relevant/best answer. I have a feeling they use some combination of signals to say “people who perform searches like this seem to eventually wind up on this website—let’s rank it.” One of my favorite examples is the Audubon Society ranking for all sorts of birding-related searches with very poor keyword targeting, not great links, etc. I think user behavior patterns are stronger in the algo than they’ve ever been.

– Rand Fishkin

Leading on from what Rand has said, it’s becoming more and more common to see search results that just don’t make sense if you look at the link metrics—but are a good result.

For me, the move towards user data driving search results + machine learning advanced has been the biggest change we’ve seen in recent years and it’s still going.

Edit: since drafting this post, Tom Anthony released this excellent blog post on his views on the future of search and the shift to data-driven results. I’d recommend reading that as it approaches this whole area from a different perspective and I feel that an off-shoot of what Tom is talking about is the impact on link building.

You may be asking at this point, what does machine learning have to do with link building?

Everything. Because as strong as links are as a ranking signal, Google want more signals and user signals are far, far harder to manipulate than established link signals. Yes it can be done—I’ve seen it happen. There have even been a few public tests done. But it’s very hard to scale and I’d venture a guess that only the top 1% of spammers are capable of doing it, let alone maintaining it for a long period of time. When I think about the process for manipulation here, I actually think we go a step beyond spammers towards hackers and more cut and dry illegal activity.

For link building, this means that traditional methods of manipulating signals are going to become less and less effective as these user signals become stronger. For us as link builders, it means we can’t keep searching for that silver bullet or the next method of scaling link building just for an easy win. The fact is that scalable link building is always going to be at risk from penalization from Google—I don’t really want to live a life where I’m always worried about my clients being hit by the next update. Even if Google doesn’t catch up with a certain method, machine learning and user data mean that these methods may naturally become less effective and cost efficient over time.

There are of course other things such as social signals that have come into play. I certainly don’t feel like these are a strong ranking factor yet, but with deals like this one between Google and Twitter being signed, I wouldn’t be surprised if that ever-growing dataset is used at some point in organic results. The one advantage that Twitter has over Google is it’s breaking news freshness. Twitter is still way quicker at breaking news than Google is—140 characters in a tweet is far quicker than Google News! Google know this which is why I feel they’ve pulled this partnership back into existence after a couple of years apart.

There is another important point to remember here and it’s nicely summarised by Dr. Pete:

At the same time, as new signals are introduced, these are layers not replacements. People hear social signals or user signals or authorship and want it to be the link-killer, because they already fucked up link-building, but these are just layers on top of on-page and links and all of the other layers. As each layer is added, it can verify the layers that came before it and what you need isn’t the magic signal but a combination of signals that generally matches what Google expects to see from real, strong entities. So, links still matter, but they matter in concert with other things, which basically means it’s getting more complicated and, frankly, a bit harder. Of course, on one wants to hear that.”

– Dr. Pete

The core principles have not changed

This is the crux of everything for me. With all the changes listed above, the key is that the core principles around link building haven’t changed. I could even argue that Penguin didn’t change the core principles because the techniques that Penguin targeted should never have worked in the first place. I won’t argue this too much though because even Google advised website owners to build directory links at one time.

You need an asset

You need to give someone a reason to link to you. Many won’t do it out of the goodness of their heart! One of the most effective ways to do this is to develop a content asset and use this as your reason to make people care. Once you’ve made someone care, they’re more likely to share the content or link to it from somewhere.

You need to promote that asset to the right audience

I really dislike the stance that some marketers take when it comes to content promotion—build great content and links will come.

No. Sorry but for the vast majority of us, that’s simply not true. The exceptions are people that sky dive from space or have huge existing audiences to leverage.

You simply have to spend time promoting your content or your asset for it to get shares and links. It is hard work and sometimes you can spend a long time on it and get little return, but it’s important to keep working at until you’re at a point where you have two things:

  • A big enough audience where you can almost guarantee at least some traffic to your new content along with some shares
  • Enough strong relationships with relevant websites who you can speak to when new content is published and stand a good chance of them linking to it

Getting to this point is hard—but that’s kind of the point. There are various hacks you can use along the way but it will take time to get right.

You need consistency

Leading on from the previous point. It takes time and hard work to get links to your content—the types of links that stand the test of time and you’re not going to be removing in 12 months time anyway! This means that you need to keep pushing content out and getting better each and every time. This isn’t to say you should just churn content out for the sake of it, far from it. I am saying that with each piece of content you create, you will learn to do at least one thing better the next time. Try to give yourself the leverage to do this.

Anything scalable is at risk

Scalable link building is exactly what Google has been trying to crack down on for the last few years. Penguin was the biggest move and hit some of the most scalable tactics we had at our disposal. When you scale something, you often lose some level of quality, which is exactly what Google doesn’t want when it comes to links. If you’re still relying on tactics that could fall into the scalable category, I think you need to be very careful and just look at the trend in the types of links Google has been penalizing to understand why.

The part Google plays in this

To finish up, I want to briefly talk about the part that Google plays in all of this and shaping the future they want for the web.

I’ve always tried to steer clear of arguments involving the idea that Google is actively pushing FUD into the community. I’ve preferred to concentrate more on things I can actually influence and change with my clients rather than what Google is telling us all to do.

However, for the purposes of this post, I want to talk about it.

General paranoia has increased. My bet is there are some companies out there carrying out zero specific linkbuilding activity through worry.

Dan Barker

Dan’s point is a very fair one and just a day or two after reading this in an email, I came across a page related to a client’s target audience that said:

“We are not publishing guest posts on SITE NAME any more. All previous guest posts are now deleted. For more information, see www.mattcutts.com/blog/guest-blogging/“.

I’ve reworded this as to not reveal the name of the site, but you get the point.

This is silly. Honestly, so silly. They are a good site, publish good content, and had good editorial standards. Yet they have ignored all of their own policies, hard work, and objectives to follow a blog post from Matt. I’m 100% confident that it wasn’t sites like this one that Matt was talking about in this blog post.

This is, of course, from the publishers’ angle rather than the link builders’ angle, but it does go to show the effect that statements from Google can have. Google know this so it does make sense for them to push out messages that make their jobs easier and suit their own objectives—why wouldn’t they? In a similar way, what did they do when they were struggling to classify at scale which links are bad vs. good and they didn’t have a big enough web spam team? They got us to do it for them 🙂

I’m mostly joking here, but you see the point.

The most recent infamous mobilegeddon update, discussed here by Dr. Pete is another example of Google pushing out messages that ultimately scared a lot of people into action. Although to be fair, I think that despite the apparent small impact so far, the broad message from Google is a very serious one.

Because of this, I think we need to remember that Google does have their own agenda and many shareholders to keep happy. I’m not in the camp of believing everything that Google puts out is FUD, but I’m much more sensitive and questioning of the messages now than I’ve ever been.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your feedback and thoughts in the comments.

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Everything a Small Business Should Know About SEO

SEO has often been confusing for the small business owner and now with Google algorithms changing all the time and the idea of penalties, it has even gotten scary. So how does one really…

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Be Intentional about Your Content & SEO Goals or Face Certain Failure – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

We’re seeing more and more companies investing in content marketing, and that’s a great thing. Many of them, however, are putting less thought than they should into the specific goals behind the content they produce. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand covers examples of goals for targeting different kinds of people, from those who merely stumbled upon your site to those who are strongly considering becoming customers.

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

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week we’re going to chat about being intentional about the content investments that you make. Now this is particularly important because otherwise it can lead to doom.

I got to organize the Foundry CEO Summit last week in Boulder, Colorado. I’m not sure when you are watching this. It might be several weeks ago now. But in any case, I’m talking with a bunch of CEOs and we have a number of discussion topics. One of the discussion topics, which was my personal favorite, one of the ones I was moderating was the top of funnel customer acquisition.

So I’m talking with a lot of these CEOs, B2B and B2C CEOs, about their content marketing efforts. Virtually everyone is investing in content marketing or thinking about it, which is awesome because it is very powerful. But many of them are investing in it somewhat unintentionally, or they haven’t talked with their CMOs and their marketing teams about precisely what that content is.

So we pulled up a couple of blogs from some of the participants. I’m kind of looking through like, “I’m not sure that there’s a strategic initiative behind all of the content that’s being produced.” That can be hugely helpful, and that’s true both for the content side of it and for the SEO side of it.

Many of the folks who are watching Whiteboard Friday undoubtedly are really deep into the tactics and the SEO side. So this video is for your managers, for your bosses, for you to help them understand how to choose content investments and what to expect from different kinds of investments.

Let me show you what I mean. Different kinds of content exist to target people at different sections of their experience with your site: at the consideration phase, where they’re close to buying, this is really for people who are thinking about buying your product; at the discovery phase for people who are just learning about your product or company; and at the viral or super broad content phase, where you’re not even necessarily trying to attract an audience that might buy from you, you’re doing other kinds of things.

So I’m going to try and walk through each of these. I’m actually going to start with the one that’s closest to the conversion process or the conversion point in that process.

So let’s imagine that I’m going to be the marketer at GeekDesk. GeekDesk sells these great sit-stand desks. I have one at home. I have one here at Moz. I love them to death because I stand up and work. I have sciatica in my left leg that I’ve had for many years, and I’ve been trying to work on that. One of the things I did is switch to a sit-stand desk. I actually almost never put it in sit mode anymore. I’m standing all the time. But in any case, GeekDesk makes great ones, ones that I really like.

So if I’m working at GeekDesk, my consideration phase content might be things like the models page, the models of all the different GeekDesks that I can buy. It might be a page on the advantages of the GeekDesk preset heights. GeekDesk has these little settings. I can push one, two, three, four, and it’ll go to different heights. I have one at home where I can push it to two, and it will go to the height for Geraldine so she can work at my desk. Then I press one, and it goes to my height. Then I press three, I haven’t pre-programmed three or four yet. But in any case, maybe if Elijah comes over, I’ll set one for you.

It might be “GeekDesk warranty and return policy,” or “sit-stand desks from GeekDesk.” These are kind of product-centric things. My content goals here are product awareness and conversion. I’m trying to get people to know about the products that I offer and to convert them to buyers.

This is really about information for those potential buyers. So my audience, naturally, is going to be customers, potential customers, and maybe also some media that’s already planning to write about me, which is why I want to have things like great photography and probably some testimonial quotes and all that kind of stuff.

The SEO targets for these types of pages are going to be my branded keywords — certainly things like “GeekDesk” and “GeekDesk desks” and whatever the models that I’ve got are — and then non-branded keywords that are directly, exactly tied to the products that my customers are going to perform when they search. These are things like sit-stand desks or adjustable height desks. That’s what this stuff is targeting.

This is very classic, very old-school kind of SEO and almost not even in the realm really of content marketing. These are just kind of product-focused pages. You should have plenty of these on your site, but they don’t always have overlap with these other things, and this is where I think the challenge comes into play.

Discovery phase content is really different. This is content like benefits of standing desks. That’s a little broader than GeekDesk. That’s kind of weird. Why would I write about that instead of benefits of GeekDesk? Well, I’m trying to attract a bigger audience. 99% of the content that you’ll ever see me present or write about is not why you should use Moz tools. That’s intentional. I don’t like promoting our stuff all that much. In fact, I’m kind of allergic to it, which has its own challenges.

In any case, this is targeting an audience that I am trying to reach who will learn from me. So I might write things like why sitting at a desk might significantly harm your health or companies that have moved to standing desks. I’d have a list of them, and I have some testimonials from companies that have moved to standing desks. They don’t even have to be on my product. I’m just trying to sell more of the idea and get people engaged with things that might potentially tie to my business. How to be healthy at work, which is even broader.

So these content goals are a little different. I’m trying to create awareness of the company. I just want people to know that GeekDesk exists. So if they come and they consume this content, even if they never become buyers, at least they will know and have heard of us. That’s important as well.

Remember television commercial advertisers pay millions and millions of dollars just to get people to know that they exist. That’s creating those brand impressions, and after more and more brand impressions, especially over a given time frame, you are more likely to know that brand, more likely to trust them, conversion rates go up, all those kinds of things.

I’m also trying to create awareness of the issues. I sometimes don’t even care if you remember that that great piece of content about how to be healthy at work came from GeekDesk. All I care is that you remember that standing at work is probably healthier for you than sitting. That’s what I hope to spread. That’s the virality that I hope to create there. I want to help people so that they trust, remember, and know me in the future. These are the goals around discovery phase content.

That audience can be potential customers, but there’s probably a much broader audience with demographic or psychographic overlap with my customers. That can be a group that’s tremendously larger, and some small percentage of them might someday be customers or customer targets. This is probably also people like media, influencers, and potential amplifiers. This may be a secondary piece, but certainly I hope to reach some of those.

The SEO targets are going to be the informational searches that these types of folks will perform and broad keywords around my products. This is not my personal products, but any of the types of products that I offer. This also includes broad keywords around my customers’ interests. That might be “health at work,” that might be “health at home,” that might be broadly dealing with issues like the leg issue that I’ve got, like sciatica stuff. It can be much broader than just what my product helps solve.

Then there’s a third one. These two I think get conflated more than anything else. This is more the viral, super broad content. This is stuff like, “Scientific studies show that work will kill you. Here’s how.” Wow. That sounds a little scary, but it also sounds like something that my aunt would post on Facebook.

“Work setups at Facebook versus Google versus Microsoft.” I would probably take a look at that article. I want to see what the different photographs are and how they differ, especially if they are the same across all of them. That would surprise me. But I want to know why they have uniqueness there.

“The start-up world’s geekiest desk setup.” That’s going to be visual content that’s going to be sailing across the Web. I definitely want to see that.

“An interactive work setup pricing calculator.” That is super useful, very broad. When you think about the relationship of this to who’s going to be in my potential customer set, that relationship is pretty small. Let’s imagine that this is the Venn diagram of that with my actual customer base. It’s a really tiny little overlap right there. It’s a heart-shaped Venn diagram. I don’t know why that is. It’s because I love you.

The content goals around this are that I want to grow that broad awareness, just like I did with my informational content. I want to attract links. So few folks, especially outside of SEOs and content marketers, really understand this. What happens here is I’m going to attract links with this broad or more viral focused content, and those links will actually help all of this content rank better. This is the rising tide of domain authority that lifts all of the ships, all of the pages on the domain and their potential ranking ability. That’s why you see folks investing in this regularly to boost up the ranking potential of these.

That being said, as we’ve talked about in a previous Whiteboard Friday, Google is doing a lot more domain association and keyword level domain association. So if you do the “problems with abusing alcohol” and that happens to go viral on your site, that probably won’t actually help you rank for any of this stuff because it is completely outside the topic model of what all of these things are about. You want to be at least somewhat tangentially related in a semantic way.

Finally, I want to reach an audience outside of my targets for potential serendipity. What do I mean by that? I’m talking about I want to reach someone who has no interest in sitting and standing desks, but might be an investor for me or a supplier for me or a business development partner. They might be someone who happens to tell someone who happens to tell another someone, that long line of serendipity that can happen through connections. That’s what this viral content is about.

So the audience is really not just specific influencers or customers, but anyone who might influence potential customers. It’s a big, broad group. It’s not just these people in here. It’s these people who influence them and those people who influence them. It’s a big, broad group.

Then I’m really looking for a link likely audience with this kind of content. I want to find people who can amplify, people who can socially share, people who can link directly through a blog, through press and media, through resources pages, that kind of stuff.

So my SEO targets might be really broad keywords that have the potential to reach those amplifiers. Sometimes — I know this is weird for me to say — it is okay to have none at all, no keyword target at all. I can imagine a lot of viral content that doesn’t necessarily overlap with a specific keyword search but that has the potential to earn a lot of links and reach influencers. Thus, you kind of go, “Well, let’s turn off the SEO on this one and just at least make it nicely indexable and make the links point to all the right places back throughout here so that I’m bumping up their potential visibility.”

This fits into the question of: What type of content strategy am I doing? Why am I investing in this particular piece? Before you create a piece of content or pitch a piece of content to your manager, your CMO, your CEO, you should make sure you know which one it is. It is so important to do that, because otherwise they’ll judge this content by this ROI and this content by these expectations. That’s just not going to work. They’re going to look at their viral content and go, “I don’t see any conversions coming from this. That was a waste.”

That’s not what it was about. You have to create the right expectations for each kind of content in which you are going to be investing.

All right everyone, I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Whiteboard Friday. We will see you again next week. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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How to Be TAGFEE when You Disagree

Posted by Lisa-Mozstaff

On being TAGFEE


I’m a big advocate of the TAGFEE culture at Moz. It’s one of the big
reasons I joined the team and why I stay here. I also recognize that sometimes
it can be hard to practice it in “Real Life.” 

How, for instance, can I
be both authentic AND fun when I tell Anthony how angry I am that he
took the last two donuts? I can certainly be transparent and authentic,
but, anger and confrontation…where does that get fun?

But those times when you need to be authentic—those are the times when being generous and empathetic matter the most. It may seem more generous and empathetic to just withhold that difficult feedback, but it’s not. Giving that feedback can be scary, and most people imagine things going horribly wrong and leaving everything in ruins when you really just wanted to help.

Having a little bit of self-awareness and a whole lot of hold-on- there-a-minute can really help with this. I’ve been sharing with other Mozzers a way to be Transparent AND Authentic AND Generous AND Fun AND Empathetic AND Exceptional. And I thought I’d share a little bit of it with you too.

Conflict can be productive

Why it’s important to have productive conflict

Why it matters

If you read about the psychology and physiology of confrontations, you’ll realize that our brains aren’t at their best when we’re in a confrontation.

When threatened, our bodies respond by going back to our most basic, primal instincts, sometimes called the lizard brain or (cue scary music) “amygdala hijack.” Blood and oxygen pump away from your brain and into your muscles so you’re equipped to fight or run away.

However, having your higher-order thinking functions deprived of oxygen when confronted by an angry customer or coworker isn’t such a good thing. Your lizard brain isn’t well-equipped to deal with situations diplomatically, or look at ways to find common ground and a win-win solution. It’s looking to destroy or get the heck out of there (or both), and neither of those approaches work well in a business environment.

To really communicate,*everyone* has to feel safe. If you are calm and collected and using the collaborative parts of your brain, but the person you’re talking to is scared or uncertain, you can’t communicate.

Fighting the lizard

Control the physiological and psychological reactions of fear

When you’re in a confrontation, how do you control the physiological and psychological reactions of fear so you can choose to act rather than react?

To bring your brain back, you need to force your brain to use its higher-order thinking functions. Ask yourself questions that the lizard brain can’t answer, and it’ll have to send some of that oxygen and blood back up into the rest of your brain.

Once you’ve freed your brain from the lizard, you have access to your higher thinking functions – and the resources to have a productive confrontation.

Questions to fight the lizard:

  • Find benevolent intent. Ask yourself what you really want from this interaction. Find an intention that’s benevolent for both you and the other person. Draw on your Empathy and Generosity here. 
  • Get curious. Ask yourself why you or the other person is emotional and seek to understand. The lizard brain hates “why” questions. 

This lizard has no choice, but you do! (Image by Lisa Wildwood)

What does productive conflict look like?

Giving up “winning” to win

Give yourself permission to try something new. Even if you don’t do it perfectly, it’s better than the lizard.

These steps assume you’ve got some time to prepare, but sometimes, you find yourself in a confrontation and have to do the best you can. Give yourself permission to try something new. Even if you don’t do it perfectly, it’s better than the lizard taking over. And the more you practice these, the easier and more natural they’ll feel, and the more confidence you’ll have in the power of productive confrontations.

Once I’ve walked you through all of these steps, I’ll talk about how to put it all together. Also note that these steps may be contrary to how you are used to behaving, particularly if you come from a culture that values personal success over teamwork. It may feel strange to do this at first, and it may feel like you’re giving up the chance to “win”… but it’s worth it.


Steps to productive conflict:

  1. Change your story.
  2. Talk about the right things. 
  3. Get curious.
  4. Inspire and be inspired
  5. Follow up.

1 - Change your story

Create a benevolent story and a positive intent

The first step to Productive Conflict is to change your story. And to do that, you first have to realize you’re telling stories in the first place…

We’re all amazing storytellers

We all make up stories every time we see something happen. It’s human nature.

Here’s my story:

This is Anthony, stealing my donut. He saw me coming and grabbed it
before I could.

He’s munching on my donut while I despair of ever
getting a donut.

I don’t get why he’s so selfish that he took two donuts. I mean, didn’t his mama raise him right?

Imaged cropped from an image courtesy of

Stéfan under Creative Commons license

My story is one we all make up sometimes. We paint ourselves as helpless victims thwarted by an evil villain. Sometimes we don’t see them as stories, however, but as reality, and that’s where we get into trouble.

The victim/villain story may get you sympathy, but it takes away your power. During a confrontation, it helps if you remember that it *is* a story, and it’s also:

  • Internal – Something you made up based on what you’ve seen, assumed, or experienced in the past in a similar situation
  • Of questionable validity. It could be true, partially true, or completely bogus 
  • Mutable!

“Mutable?” you ask. Why, yes, it is!

Changing the story you’re telling yourself is the key to having a productive (and powerful) conversation.

Make a happy story

You can read body language really well. And so can the person you’re talking to.

If you’re going to make up a story, make one up that helps you resolve an important issue and maintain your relationships.

Change your story to the most kind and generous one that fits the facts you’ve seen, and then believe it. Why? Because non-verbal cues, state of mind, fear or anger, and judgments and stories affect your reactions and approach to the conversation.

If you’ve planned your words out carefully but the intent doesn’t match, the other person can tell. If your intent isn’t good, the interaction won’t be good either. At best, you may appear to be trying to do the right thing but not really managing it. At worst, you appear insincere and manipulative.

Here’s your benevolent story, just waiting to hatch
(
Image by Pon Malar on Wikimedia under creative commons license)

How to change your story

To help change your story, ask yourself these questions:

  • Why might a reasonable, intelligent, courteous, kind person do that?
  • Could there be circumstances I’m not aware of that could be contributing?
  • What if it was me? How would I explain what happened from my perspective? Be as lenient/forgiving as you can to your imaginary self
Review the facts… what you’ve seen and what you’ve
chosen to pay attention to. They may all appear to support a nasty
story, but you don’t know for sure. Think of the Rorschach tests…
people see different things depending on how they’re feeling and their
unique view on life, so find a benevolent story.

My new story

So, let’s try this on my story.  I’ll start with the facts,
remove my emotional devastation at not getting a donut, and create a
benevolent story:

  • My facts are: I saw someone take the last two donuts.
  • My new benevolent story is: Anthony didn’t see me, and didn’t know how much I was craving a donut.

What do you see? (Image by Hermann Rorschach (died 1922), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

But my story is true!

Let’s assume for a moment, your not-so-nice story is completely, 100%, bonafide TRUE. This is hard, but consider this carefully… It Doesn’t Matter!

Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is the best way to motivate them to change. By creating a benevolent story, you give the person a way to improve AND save face. It’s magic!

Assuming the worst can severely damage your relationships, even if it’s true! Getting caught it a mistake makes people immediately defensive, which will hinder the conversation. Give them a chance to just fix things and they’ll be grateful to you and more inspired to make the change stick.

And then there’s the flip side… what if your story is partly or all wrong? This situation, as you can imagine, is much worse.

You’ll probably never find out what truly happened, and may find yourself arguing about the parts you got wrong rather than the real issue. It also damages the relationship, and here’s the key point: even if the person can get past their anger and hear your message, they will likely not like you, trust you, or want to work with you. And I’ve heard crow tastes really bad.

The power of a benevolent story and positive intent

The last part of changing your story is figuring out what you want from the conversation.

Think about what you want to happen, but also what you want from the relationship. The power of a benevolent story and positive intent is that it fosters a better relationship based on trust . That is huge and I recommend that it be part of the intent of all conversations.

Judgment doublecheck!

When you’re done, go back through what you’ve got down and make sure a not-so-nice story hasn’t crept back in:

  • Remove judgment
  • Check that the issue matches your intent

Some examples

Here’s some examples where I take a nasty story, break it down to the facts, and then create a new, benevolent story and a positive intent for a discussion.

Judgment & Nasty Story

Fact

New Benevolent Story

Positive Intent

What a jerk, he just cut me off! Are you trying to kill me?

A car changed lanes in front of me in a way that I found uncomfortable.

Wow, he must not have seen me.

Let him know a head check was needed.

Sue doesn’t respect me enough to respond to my email. She thinks it’s a stupid idea.

Sue didn’t answer my email when I expected.

Sue’s busy and either hasn’t seen my email or hasn’t had time to respond.

Follow up with Sue on what she thinks

What an idiot! That report Bruce turned in didn’t even try to answer the questions I had. It’s useless!

Bruce turned in a report that didn’t have the information I expected and needed.

Bruce wasn’t aware or misunderstood what information I needed.

Let Bruce know what I need in the reports.

Remember that stories spread…all storytellers love an audience. So make sure your story is spreading positivity

2 - Talk about the right things

Get clear on what the conversation needs to be about

What do you want from the conversation?

The next step is to think about what the real issue is. What exactly needs to happen? Who is involved? Who is impacted? Which facts are known? What information is available?

In TAGFEE terms, this is where transparency and being exceptional come in. Make sure that you’re talking about the right issue.

Ask yourself:

  • What is the impact to you and others?
  • What are the facts?
  • Scope – is this the first time? The second? The umpteenth?

Can you spot the judgment?

I just broke my own rules… can you see it?

I’ll give you a hint…it’s that last word in the Scope point… it sneaks in, so check!

Are you talking about apples when the issue is really oranges?

Scope is important:

  • If it’s the first time something has happened, you talk about what happened.
  • If it’s the second or third, talk about how it keeps happening.
  • If you can’t remember how many times it’s happened, talk about how the behavior is affecting your relationship.

Orange

Ask questions to understand and get to the root causes

Be an information maniac

Find out how the other person sees the situation.

Before you trip too far down that happy path, get more information. Seek to understand. Use Empathy and Generosity, and be Authentic. Ask neutral questions to create safety, and give the other person a chance to respond – you might find out something you didn’t know.

Asking neutral questions can create a space of collaboration, where you are both on the same side trying to figure out how to solve an issue you both agree needs to be resolved. It’s not always possible to turn a conflict into a collaboration, but you’d be surprised how many times it does work that way.

Another benefit of asking neutral questions is that it puts off conclusions and judgments until you have talked to the person involved and heard what they have to say. This is critical to keeping the conversation safe and collaborative.

Questions to ask:

  • What is your perspective? What do you see going on?
  • What’s important to you? Tell me more about that.
  • Here’s what I notice… What do you notice?

State conclusions tentatively

You can state a conclusion tentatively, making it clear you’re looking for their input on whether that conclusion is valid or if they have more information.

Listen carefully and continue to put off judgment until you’ve heard what they have to say.

Putting off judgment makes it easier for *you* to admit that you’ve been wrong. You may find what you thought was going to be a difficult conversation instead opens up a new level of authenticity and collaboration in your relationships.

Make sure anything you state definitively are only facts, devoid of judgment.

Be open to being wrong!

Or being surprised by more information that turns your story on its head.

Just maybe it wasn’t Anthony I saw “stealing” donuts in the stormtrooper outfit…

4 - Inspire and be inspiredCreate a mutual purpose or common goal that inspires everyone to move forward

It’s all upside

Why inspire others? Well, why not? There is no downside to inspiring people: it benefits everyone.

The earlier steps talk about getting clear of the negative. This is where the good stuff happens. The Fun in TAGFEE! If you start from what felt like a conflict and end up with a mutual understanding with someone about what an issue is and how to resolve it, all things are possible. It can feel like magic! You move from confrontation to collaboration and win-win thinking that can help you both step outside the box.

Here’s a chart that’s totally made up, but it communicates a key point in communication. Collaboration happens when you both trust and respect the people you’re talking to!

True collaboration

You need both a willingness and freedom to disagree, and mutual trust and respect to get into the “Collaboration Zone.”

The key to inspiring others is to seek to understand their point of view and their goals, and work together with them to find common ground.

Start the collaboration engine by asking some powerful questions and seeing what you can agree on and brainstorm solutions.

Collaboration engine questions:

  • What’s working?
  • What do you think?
  • What can we agree on?
  • What are we both interested in achieving?
  • What’s important about resolving this?
  • What can we try?

A rainbow of solutions

Solutions often go from the black and white “my” vs. “your”
choice to a synergistic combination of mine and yours and other ideas we
brainstormed along the way.

You may disagree on how to do something, but if
you can agree on a common goal, you’re one step closer to a win-win
solution.

Instead
of accusing Anthony of taking the last donut and demanding that he
promise to never do it again, or be reported to Team Happy for a
happiness “adjustment,” my conversation is now about fair access to
donuts at Moz. The entire conversation’s focus has shifted from “I want
Anthony to know how angry I am he stole my donut” to “how can we make
sure no-one at Moz is donut-deprived?” Magic!

Fair Access to Donuts at Moz – Possible solutions:

  • Work with Team Happy to make sure there’s enough donuts for everyone who wants them
  • Ask everyone at the company to only take one
  • Get a fresh donut machine where we can all make our own donuts on demand

5 - Follow up

Agree on what to do next and circle back around
This is a little step with a big impact.  Make sure you’ve captured your conversation and everyone is on board to take action to make your solutions a reality.

Being Exceptional and Authentic come into play here. You’re collaborating on a solution and then making it happen.

Once you’ve established a shared understanding of an issue that needs to be resolved, it’s time to figure out how. Solicit ideas for how to solve the problem. Listen, acknowledge feedback and discuss pros and cons on the solutions until you both agree the solution is a good approach.

Make sure everyone is in agreement on:

  • Goals. How will you measure success?
  • Due dates. Who will do what by when?
  • When to check in: What time will we check to see how we’re doing?

Wrapping it up

Have productive, inspiring conversations, whether you agree or disagree

Before you talk to someone

At first, it may help to write down what you’re planning on saying.

I’ve broken this down into discrete before and during steps, but it doesn’t always end up being that way in practice. Use these steps to plan and practice until it comes naturally.

Steps to prepare:

  • Calm down! Lizard brain begone!
  • Create a happy story
  • Make sure you’re talking about the right thing
  • Write out what you want to say and check for your old story & judgments
  • Remember your benevolent intent

Have the conversation

Steps:

  1. Ask if the person has time to talk
  2. State your benevolent intent
  3. Keep to the facts
  4. State conclusions tentatively
  5. Get curious – seek to understand their point of view
  6. Be open to being wrong. Change your mind if needed.
  7. Aim toward collaboration.
  8. Finish with summarizing what you’ve discussed, and who will do what, when.

Remember the conversation may dictate you take a different path.

If the conversation starts to get heated, re-establish safety:

  • Restate your intent
  • Explicitly state what you’re not trying to do. For example, “I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m trying to help us come to a solution that works for both of us.”

When conflict finds you

If you find yourself in a conversation unexpectedly, these steps can still help. Get curious, find out what they want, how they’re feeling, and tentatively state your perspective and ask for feedback. Some other ideas:

  • Accept the input and acknowledge the emotions but don’t reciprocate. Ask yourself “what do I want from this interaction” to rescue your brain from the lizard.
  • Do your best to establish safety for you and the other person by establishing a positive intent. It can be as simple as “Wow, Lisa, I can see you’re really upset about not getting a donut. I’d like to figure out how I can fix this – can I ask you a few questions?”

Don’t hesitate to take a break

If the conversation is heated, it may be better to step away and take the conversation up later. You might say:

“I can see this is an subject we both care deeply about. I’d like to take some time to prepare for a productive conversation, can we take a break and meet back here in an hour.”

An example conversation

So, my side of the conversation with Anthony about the donuts might go like this:

“Anthony, do you have time to talk?”

“I’d like to talk to you about making sure everyone at Moz has the opportunity to get a donut. ”

“I saw someone taking the last two donuts this morning, and I was disappointed that I didn’t get one.”

“I thought it might be you, so I wanted to talk to you to see what happened.”

“I’m
not accusing you of taking the last two donuts. I’m trying to figure
out what happened and then work on how to make sure the donuts are
evenly distributed at Moz”

“Oh, so you were grabbing a donut for Crystal too! Wow, I totally misinterpreted what I saw!”

“Can you think of ways we can ensure everyone gets a donut?”

“Great, so I’ll contact Team Happy about getting a donut machine tomorrow, and you’ll approve the expense report on Friday.”

Image from Nostalgia Electrics

Perfection not required

Not everything will always turn out wonderful, but at least you’ve approached the problem and given feedback in a way that has the best chance for a positive outcome for everyone involved.

Maybe you’re a little closer to what the real issues are, or you’ve agreed to disagree; even those outcomes will keep miscommunication or confusion from being a source of problems.

If I really feel that donut was mine, and Anthony really thinks that donut was promised to Crystal, we may not agree, but at least everything is on the table where we have the chance to deal with it. And, we’re not telling our nasty stories to everyone but the person we need to talk to.

Feedback is a gift

Annette Promes, our CMO, said to me, “Feedback is a gift,” and it is.

Most folks want to know, and are truly interested in being better… better coworkers, friends, and humans. So let’s all resolve to give that gift in the best way we can. And receive it gratefully when it comes to us.

Oh, and that donut conflict… totally made up. I’m gluten-intolerant girl, so you can always have my share, Anthony! 🙂

Give me feedback

I experimented with converting a training class into a blog post, and would love to have your feedback on what works for you and what could be better.

You can also download this blog post in slidedoc format. It’s a communication technique that’s halfway between presentation and documentation. I learned about it at
Write the Docs this year. You can read more and get the free slidedoc ebook at their site. What do you think?

Other resources

You may find these resources helpful too:

5 Rules for Productive Conflict (TED talk)

6 ways to make conflict productive

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

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Demystifying Data Visualization for Marketers

Posted by Annie Cushing

I presented on wrangling and demystifying the data visualization process for marketers at MozCon this year, and it turns out there was far more to talk about than could fit into that half-hour. For the sake of those who couldn’t make it and those who could but want to learn more, I pulled together this overview of my presentation, offering more detail than I could in the slides.

To see all of the links shared in this post, check out my
MozCon Bitly bundle.

You may want to open the SlideShare file in another tab or browser window, so you can easily toggle between the post and the SlideShare.

I’m going to go through the presentation slide by slide to bring the narrative to print.

Slide 3

I have a confession: Although it’s probably safe to say I’m a fairly advanced Excel user — at least among marketers — until recently I had no real charting strategy. In fact, I signed up to do this presentation partly to force me to carve out a strategy, particularly with Google Analytics data.

Slide 4

In this presentation I have focused on Google Analytics data for a couple reasons:

  1. If you can wrangle Google Analytics, other marketing data is a walk in the park.
  2. It has naming conventions that map beautifully to Excel, making it an ideal tutor.

Slide 5

My approach may seem a bit Karate Kid-esque, but if you can grasp the interplay between Google Analytics and Excel, you’ll never be left wondering how to visualize your data.

Although there are many aspects to data visualization, I focus primarily on charting.

Slide 6

In Excel there are two components to charts that are critical to understand: data series and categories. They are always used together.

Think of categories as buckets for your data and data series as the data itself.

Slide 7

If you dumped a pile of Legos in front of a group of kids and told them to organize them by color into their corresponding, labeled containers and then count them, the containers would be categories. And the data series would be the count of Lego bricks.

Slide 8

First let’s peek under the hood on a PC by cracking open the Select Data Source dialog. You get to it by right-clicking on your chart and choosing Select Data.

Slide 9

Excel for Mac also has data series on the left and categories on the right. And that’s about all they have in common.

Slide 10

But, as with most features in Excel for Mac, the functionality of the Mac’s Data Source dialog is far inferior to that of the PC.

Slide 11

This sort option is helpful if you have a stacked chart and want to sort the individual data series. I like to put the larger series on the bottom and smaller ones on the top. But if you have a stacked chart on the Mac and you want to reorder the data series, you actually have to delete the series you want demoted and manually add it back in.

It’s kind of like that game, Hand on Hand, you might have played as a kid where kids go around in a circle putting their right hands in the middle, followed by the left hands. Then they go around the circle moving the bottom hands to the top of the pile as fast as possible.

Although in this case, you’re moving the data series to the
bottom of the pile.

Slide 12

To move the Sessions data series to the bottom of the pile, first select it from the Series list.

Slide 13

Then click the Remove button to delete it from the list.

Slide 14

Then click the Add button to add it back to the list of data series.

Slide 15

Click the data selector button to the right of the Name field and select the series name, as directed in the screenshot.

Slide 16

Click the data selector button to the right of the Y values field and click-and-drag over the values. If the column is long, just click the first cell and press Ctrl-Shift-Down Arrow (Mac: Command-Shift-Down Arrow) to select the entire column without scrolling. (We are nothing if not efficient.)

Slide 17

And finally you need to click-and-drag over the category axis labels. Which brings us to the Mac’s other issue ….

Slide 18

In the PC version, there’s one place for the category axis labels. On the Mac you have to choose the axis labels for each series. It’s counter-intuitive.

Slide 19

Categories end up along the horizontal axis — or the vertical axis for horizontal bar charts.

Slide 20

The data series ends up in the legend and is usually a metric (from GA). But there are a couple exceptions, which we’ll get to in a minute. The categories populate to the horizontal axis label or vertical axis label with the bar chart.

Slide 21

Transition to Google Analytics.

Slide 22

The two major players in Google Analytics – that we’ll be mapping to Excel – are dimensions and metrics. They’re (practically) inseparable.

Slide 23

Dimensions are the buckets your data is broken up into. These come into Excel as text – even if they’re values – like you get with the Days to Transaction dimension (which you can get from Conversions > Ecommerce > Time to Purchase). They are always the far-left column of the table.

  • Add a secondary dimension in any report (standard or custom).

  • Create a custom flat table with two dimensions. Learn how in this post.
  • Use the API. This is the only option that will allow you to use more than two dimensions. You can pull up to seven dimensions in one API call.

Slide 24

Metrics are anything that can be measured with a number.

Slide 25

If you’re in a custom report (or have clicked the Edit link at the top of most standard reports), metrics always show up to a party in blue.

Slide 26

And dimensions show up as green.

You can learn more about custom reports from the
video tutorial I created to help marketers.

Now it’s time to marry Google Analytics and Excel.

Slide 27

In most cases dimensions in Google Analytics map to categories in Excel.

Slide 28

And metrics map to data series in Excel.

Slide 29

I’m going to break this down systematically, based on the number of dimensions and metrics you’re wanting to visualize.

Slide 30

Dimensions: 0

Metrics: Multiple

You want this if you want to know aggregate numbers, e.g, sessions for the month, or revenue, or goal completions.

Slide 31

I hate to start on a downer, but you need the API to do this. The GA interface requires at least one dimension.

Slide 32

As with most things, if you prod enough, you’ll discover hacks and workarounds. But the name of the game here is to come up with a dimension that will only have one bucket. Going back to the Legos analogy, it would be kind of like saying, “Put all the plastic Legos in this bucket and count them.”

Slide 33

Workaround: Set dimension to something that will encompass all of your data, meaning you’ll only have one row in the report. One example of that would be the User Defined dimension (under Audience > Custom > User Defined).

As you’ll see in the screenshot, all of the values are consolidated as (not set) since this profile (now called view) doesn’t use the User Defined dimension.

Slide 34

If you’re still using the User Defined dimension (and, therefore, have multiple rows reporting), you really need to update.

If you’re using classic GA, you should be using custom variables and custom dimensions if you’re using Universal.

Slide 35

Another option is to use the Year dimension with a custom report. This is ideal if you are gathering data for a single month. You can aggregate data beyond one month, as long as the date range you choose doesn’t straddle more than one year.

Slide 36

Here’s what the custom report looks like under the hood. Learn how to 
create custom reports in Google Analytics in a video tutorial I did.

Slide 37

You can access this report 
here while logged in to Google Analytics.

Slide 38

This data isn’t conducive to charting, but you can sexy up a table with
sparklines and conditional formatting.

Slide 40

Dimensions: 1

Metrics: 1

An example of this might be revenue segmented by country or bounce rate segmented by device category.

Slide 41

Pie Chart Basics

Here are some highlights about the pie chart:

  • They use angles to show the relative size of each value.
  • You should put data in descending order to put the most significant data point at 12:00 and radiate clockwise.
  • Avoid 3D pie charts. They distort data.
  • Data points must add up to 100%. So you can’t take traffic from 5 of your 8 campaigns and chart them.
  • Microsoft says no more than seven categories; I say no more than five.
  • None of the values in your data series can be negative.
  • Learn more

Pie Chart Tricks

Ways to trick out your chart:

  • You can grab a piece of the pie to isolate it and drag it out slightly to draw attention to it. This is called exploding pie pieces.
  • You can also change the values to percentages in the data labels or even add the categories, thereby negating the need for a legend.

Slide 42

Donut Chart Basics

Here are some highlights about the donut chart:

  • Donut charts show data in rings, where each ring represents a data series
  • It uses the length of the arc to indicate the size of the value.
  • You should put data in descending order to put the most significant data point at 12:00 and radiate clockwise.
  • Data points must add up to 100%. So you can’t take traffic from 5 of your 8 campaigns and chart them.
  • Microsoft says no more than seven categories; I say no more than five.
  • None of the values in your data series can be negative.
  • Learn more

Donut Chart Tricks

Ways to trick out your chart:

  • You can put the title or the value you want to highlight in the center. 

  • I don’t recommend using the donut chart for multiple series or dimensions. They’re more difficult to interpret. 

  • Like the pie chart, you can pull one out to draw attention to it.
  • You can use a donut chart to create a speedometer chart.
  • You can fill it with an image that resembles the surface of a donut to make it look like a … Okay, yeah, never mind …

Slide 43

Column Chart Basics

  • Should sort in descending order.
  • The axis should start at 0.
  • Categories don’t have to add up to 100%
  • Learn more

Column Chart Tricks

  • You can add a trendline to make trends stand out.
  • Consider going totally minimalist with the techniques I demonstrate in this video tutorial. (You can skip to the 15:53 mark.)
  • Don’t be afraid to move the legend around.
  • Excel’s default axis tends to be dense. I typically double the Major Unit, so if the major unit is set to 100, I typically up it to 200. Learn more about the major unit from the Microsoft site. (But I also show how in the above-mentioned video tutorial.
  • You can use a column chart to create a bullet graph to show current data vis-à-vis goals or projections.
  • You can use a column chart to create a waterfall chart.
  • You can add a target line to your chart.
  • If you have many categories to chart, you can use a scrollbar.
  • You can use a column chart to create a thermometer chart.
  • Just remember safety first when working with column charts.

Slide 44

Bar Chart Basics

  • You need to sort your data in ascending order to put the longest bars at the top.
  • Bar charts are good for categories with longer labels.
  • You shouldn’t use bar charts if your dimension is time based (date, month, etc.).
  • Learn more

Bar Chart Tricks

  • You can use all of the tricks (except the last two) listed in the Column Chart Tricks list.

Slide 45

Radar Chart Basics

  • Category labels are at the tip of each spine.
  • You can use a fill with your radar charts.

Radar Chart Tricks

  • Radar charts can be compelling when you compare multiple entities at once. For example, I saw a set of 50 radar charts that compared metrics like crime rates for different types of crime for each state.
  • If you don’t want the axis labels to show, you can set the number formatting to ;;; to hide them altogether. You can then include an annotation on your chart that lets viewers know the intervals. 

Slide 46

Notes about the Heat Map

Learn how to create a heat map in
this video tutorial I did.

Slide 47

And now let’s look under the hood at a typical chart that uses 1 dimension and 1 metric. Let’s say we have this table of analytics data ….

Slide 48

If we create a column chart from this table, this is what it’s going to look like (with some cleanup).

Slide 49

Now if we look at the data source this is what we’ll see ….

Slide 50

The mediums show up over here in the categories …

Slide 51

And the sessions values show up here in the data series …

Slide 52

Which populates to the legend. But you can delete the legend when you only have one metric (or data series). You’ll then want to include the metric in the chart title.

Slide 53

And the mediums populate the horizontal axis labels.

A little piece of Excel trivia: The Select Data Source dialog still says Horizontal Axis Labels, even for bar charts where the labels are on the vertical axis. #pedantic

Slide 54

Example of 1 dimension and multiple metrics: Sessions, goal completions, and revenue broken down by Device Category (mobile, tablet, desktop)

BTW, the Device Category dimension is one of the most important in Google Analytics. By itself it’s pretty useless, but in the context of other data, it’s very useful. You should be segmenting all of your data by it.

Slide 55

Notes about the Clustered Column Chart

  • Clustered column charts are good for showing comparisons (e.g, sessions vs revenue for each month or ROI vs Margin by campaign (or keyword).
  • You could transform the clustered column chart into a combination chart by adding a line chart on the secondary axis that adds a percent value.

Slide 56

Notes about the Stacked Column Chart

  • The stacked column chart is good for showing how each data series contributes to the whole.
  • An example might be revenue broken down by medium.
  • If you want to order the columns by overall height, you can create a total column for the series. You just won’t chart that column.

Slide 57

Notes about the Clustered Bar Chart

  • All of the notes in the above-mentioned stacked column chart.
  • Like the [single] bar chart, the clustered bar chart is better for categories with long labels.
  • You can hack the clustered bar chart to create a double-sided bar chart. You can view a video tutorial I did on how to do this.

Slide 58

Notes about the Stacked Bar Chart

  • If you want to sort the bars so that the longer bars are on top, create a totals column and sort it in ascending order.
  • You shouldn’t use the stacked bar chart if your dimension is time oriented (date, month, etc.).

Slide 59

Notes about the 100% Stacked Column Chart

  • Use the 100% stacked column chart when you are working with percentages.
  • The data series must add up to 100%.
  • For example, if you wanted to see what percentage of social referrals came from desktop, tablet, and mobile devices.

Slide 60

Notes about the 100% Stacked Bar Chart

All of the notes under the 100% stacked column chart apply here.

Slide 61

Notes about the Radar Chart

  • Category labels are at the tip of each spine.
  • You can use a fill with your radar charts.
  • Radar charts can be compelling when you compare multiple entities at once. For example, I saw a set of 50 radar charts that compared metrics like crime rates for different types of crime for each state.
  • If you don’t want the axis labels to show, you can set the number formatting to ;;; to hide them altogether. You can then include an annotation on your chart that lets viewers know the intervals. See the screenshot under the Slide 45 note above.

Slide 62

Notes about the Combination Chart

Learn all about combination charts in
this post I wrote on the Search Engine Land site.

Slide 63 – 69

Self-explanatory as they follow the same dialog as slides 46 – 52.

Slide 71

Notes about the Line Chart

  • In a line chart, category data is usually distributed evenly along the horizontal axis and value data is distributed evenly along the vertical axis.
  • Line charts can show continuous data over time, so they’re ideal for showing trends in data at equal intervals, like months, quarters, or fiscal years.
  • You can add markers and set the lines to none to use them in ranking charts.
  • Avoid using stacked line charts. It’s not always apparent that the data series are stacked. If you want to stack, use an area chart instead.
  • You can add interesting line markers like the ones I created in this video tutorial to replicate the charts in Moz’s tool set

Slide 72

Notes about the Stacked Area Chart

  • Ideal for showing stacked data series over time, especially if you want to demonstrate a fluid trend. Stacked column charts should be used if you want to keep each of the categories more disparate.
  • You should order the data series so that the larger series are at the bottom of the stack with the smaller series being clustered together at the top because people’s eyes naturally travel from the horizontal axis upward with stacked area charts.
  • If you keep the gridlines, make them significantly lighter. A light gray works well.
  • Make sure you have adequate contrast between contiguous data series. Sometimes Excel puts two colors next to each other that blend.
  • If you have smaller data series that are difficult to see, use stronger colors to make them easier to view.
  • If you have all larger data series and you want to add some finesse, give your data series a line (what would be called a stroke in graphic design programs) that’s slightly darker than the fill.
  • You can create a combination chart with a stacked area chart. Just don’t use a line chart for the other style. I like to use a chart style that stands out from the area chart, such as a column chart. You may want to increase the transparency of its fill so that you can easily see through to the stacked area chart.

Slide 73

Notes about the Clustered Column Chart

  • You use the clustered column chart to show comparisons between data series (as opposed to how they contribute to the whole).
  • The clustered column chart is especially effective for showing year-over-year data. The categories would just have the name of the month (I abbreviate to three letters, which you can learn how to do in this tutorial), and one column would be used to show data from one year and the other colored column would indicate the previous year. To show the month from each year as a disparate data series, you would have to make each year a separate column in your data.
  • You can add a line chart on the secondary axis that highlights the percent change between values.
  • You can play with the gap width and overlap settings to adjust the series. You get to those by selecting a column, pressing Ctrl-1 (Mac: Command-1), and navigating to the Series Options (Mac: Options) area of the Format Data Series dialog.
  • Excel doesn’t provide the option to add a data label that indicates the total of all the data series for each column. You can hack one by adding a total column that you include in the clustered column but then change to a line chart. From there, remove the line and add data labels above the line.

Slide 74

Same as Slide 60.

Slide 75

Same as Slide 58

Slide 76 – 77

Self-explanatory.

Slide 78

Things get more complicated when you want to chart two dimensions. There are three ways to get 2 dimensions:

Slide 79

So here we have two dimensions (Device Category and User Type). I picked these dimensions to demonstrate because they have a finite number of options. I LOVE the device category dimension and use it frequently to segment my data in Google Analytics.

Note: When you chart two dimensions, you can only use one metric (or data series in Excel).

Slide 80

Here’s an example of what a clustered column chart might look like.

Slide 81

We now have a dimension in the legend — or category in Excel.

Slide 82

Using the Switch Row/Column button ….

Slide 83

This is what the chart would now look like. Notice we now have three data series and two categories.

Slide 84

Now let’s take a peek under the hood.

Slide 85

Again, here you see we have dimensions, not metrics, in the data series. The metrics should be included in the chart title.

Slide 86

And now the Device Category dimension is in the category area.

Slide 87

Your chart options are the same as when you had one dimension and multiple metrics. These options are not exhaustive.

Slide 88

Slide 89

The data in this table is in report format. If only marketing export data came in this format. (It doesn’t.)

Slide 90

This is how marketing data actually comes out of different marketing tools. It’s called tabular format.

Slide 91

Just as in a database, rows in tabular data are called records.

Slide 92

Columns are called fields.

Slide 93

And the column headings are called field names. But if I were to select two dimension columns and one metric and select a chart, here’s how Excel digests the data …

Slide 94

Gross, I know. I’m a child.

Slide 95

Here’s what it actually looks like. A royal mess.

Slide 96

Excel requires that data be in a report format in order to chart two dimensions. And the one metric (sessions, revenue, impressions, whatever) goes into the green area. There’s only one way to corral an export with two dimensions and one metric into report format …

Slide 97

Pivot tables sound scary and intimidating but not if you think about what pivot means.

Slide 98

When a soldier pivots, s/he very simply goes from standing facing one direction to turning at a 90 degree angle. That’s what a pivot table does. By moving one of your dimensions into the Columns field (Mac: Column Labels field), Excel puts that dimension’s values across the top of your data. 

Once you have your data in report format, and you can chart it. You typically want to put the dimension with fewer values into the columns area.

Learn how to create pivot tables in this comprehensive video tutorial I did.

Slide 99

Although pivot tables come with a lot of junk in the trunk, you can see the pivot table puts the data into report layout, which Excel can then use to chart the data. If you’re on a PC, you can create a pivot chart. If you’re on a Mac, you can create a static chart from the pivot table because Excel for
Mac still doesn’t support pivot charts. Still. Ridic.

Slide 100

Now you’re ready to look at GA data — nay, all marketing data — with a more strategic eye… And spend less time tooling around in Excel trying to figure out how to visualize your data!

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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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