Posted by RonGarrett
In the last three years at Distilled, I have sold approximately $5 million in marketing services to over 100 businesses. Initially, the vast majority of the business I sold was in search, but over time it has evolved to encompass different facets of marketing because we are now headed towards a hyper-competitive future.
In order for our industry to continue to thrive, we need to set ourselves apart. I wanted to share some of my experience in how I was able to overcome some of the challenges our search industry is facing when it comes to competing in this post-Hummingbird, post-Penguin, post-(not provided) environment. I’ve found that it is extremely important to:
- Know what questions to ask when you have the opportunity to pitch at the executive level.
- Know why you’re investing in specific marketing channels (i.e. if I invest $x,xxx in this channel for y number of months, I can anticipate z amount of traffic and revenue).
- The goal is to invest first in the channels that you are most confident will generate the greatest increases in traffic and revenue in the short-term. Once you achieve this, your client has validation to request more budget internally to develop more long-term, less immediate-ROI driven activities.
For many years now, search marketing has been a wide open market, with more business to go around than we have known what to do with. Brand after brand has recognized their need for help with search visibility, but they have not necessarily been clear on what that would entail. This led to the gold rush of search.
While many larger agencies were focused on media buying, creative, and television campaigns, the digital landscape was taking form with SEO, PPC, social, display, conversion rate optimization, email marketing, outreach (PR for the web), and much more. We as search marketers know there is a massive opportunity to be had as the digital landscape continues to mature, but whether it is ours for the taking remains to be seen.
In order for us to survive, search marketers need to become more well-versed into all digital marketing channels and gain a concrete understanding of when it is appropriate to invest into some of them.
The combination of secure search (not provided), Google’s continual innovation upon their ability to crawl and understand both the web and search behavior (with Hummingbird being the most recent example), their successful moves against scalable link building tactics (Penguin and manual penalties), and an overall increase in competition will push search marketers down either of these two paths:
- Become less and less white-hat over time, constantly looking for ways to justify the means for scalable tactics
- Jump ship to broader digital marketing roles and bury the SEO hats (example: Director of Marketing, Marketing Strategists, Brand Strategist, Content Strategist, Product Manager etc.) to grow revenue/traffic over time on different marketing channels.
Given the picture I have described above, I want to provide you with a framework with supporting examples for how you, the search marketer, can better get more of the resources you will need in order to pursue path 2.
Search marketing challenges: a top-level look
Change is hard, especially at the pace required to be successful digital marketers, but Google, competing agencies, and the competition of brands on the web are forcing our hands as search marketers to pick our paths quickly and adapt.
Let’s start off by taking a closer look at some of the macro trends that add complexity to our jobs:
Google is a business
SEOs are dependent on a third-party platform that provides them with no proprietary information and gives them no advantage. The reality is that as Google’s ranking algorithm becomes increasingly complex, what exactly the right recommendation is for any given site becomes more ambiguous. Google simply isn’t in the business to support SEOs; they’re in the business to build the best technology in the world, so that they continue to attract the greatest number of users and generate the greatest amount of revenue. If SEOs continue to chase the algorithm, they’ll simply continue down a rabbit hole of becoming dependent on short-term tactics that at best, have no longevity, and at worst, damage the core of a business.
Not provided impacted how SEOs were able to directly attribute their work to organic growth. It has brought challenges not only to reporting, but also to how the previous work SEOs did was valued within an organization. With the advent of not provided, different marketing departments within an organization such as content, SEO, PR, and creatives can all justify that their work is what led to organic traffic growth. This makes it difficult for any organization to invest significant budget into SEO.
Penguin sent a very clear signal to SEOs that many of the link building tactics they were reliant on in the past were not only no longer effective but could even provide long-term damage to the bottom line of a business. Recovering from Penguin and any algorithmic update is uncertain, difficult, and extremely expensive. It also forced SEOs to step back and assess whether a tactic that might work today may also be detrimental to the site in the future.
Although Hummingbird may not appear to have significantly impacted search results at an initial glance, the reality is that the underlying algorithm has changed to become much more adept at understanding semantics. Hummingbird, in combination with not provided, indicates that a continued emphasis on keyword-focused strings is not sustainable. Future SEO initiatives cannot be siloed into keyword research, keyword-focused landing pages, and building links to those keyword-focused pages; wider context-based approaches are required.
Google crawlers handling technical challenges
As Google implements more updates to its underlying search algorithm, it has also become capable of resolving (for better or for worse, depending on the circumstance) many of the technical issues that SEOs used to manually correct on their own, whether it be duplicate or keyword-stuffed meta titles/descriptions, mobile alternative issues, resolving 302 redirect issues that were meant to be 301s, etc. The reality is that barring very specific technical issues on a site (penalty, migrations, development of new processes/capabilities on the back-end), the “low-hanging fruit” of on-page SEO will shrivel.
Actionable ways for search marketers to get more buy-in at the beginning to execute a broader marketing strategy
The only way to execute the broader marketing tactics that will benefit search (e.g. dedicating resources to creating content, improve the UX of the site) is to say the right things to the right people. In this era of not provided and Penguin/Panda/Hummingbird, we need to be involved in much more overarching marketing goals/objectives in order to stay relevant, have budget, and become a priority for the organization.
1. Get in front of key stakeholders. Then, ask the right questions.
There are several key stakeholders who can impact the work you do, the budget you get, the visibility your work gets, and the amount of internal resources you can utilize. They tend to be the CMO, Director of Marketing, and VP of Sales (especially if marketing is a purpose of lead-gen). The biggest challenge most individuals have when they are granted an opportunity to pitch to the executive team is how to ask the right questions that will demonstrate their expertise in not just a specific marketing channel, but how your marketing efforts will positively impact a business’s bottom line.
For example, below are the type of questions I ask executives based on their specific position within the organization.
CEO: High-level business picture
- Is this the only brand you own? Do you have a group of brands you own and operate? Does this brand we are discussing today have a parent company?
- How many years has the company been in business?
- Is the company a privately held company or publicly traded company?
- What is your business’s unique value proposition?
- Who are your major competitors in this space?
- What are the company’s most important business milestones/goals over the next 12-24 months?
- What is the business’s 10-20 year goal?
CFO: High-level financial picture
- Is the company bootstrapped (self-funded) or loan/venture funded? If loan/venture funded, what implications will this have on our engagement or your milestones?
- Is the company profitable?
- How long has the company been profitable?
- What is the company’s annual revenue? (This is easy to find if the company is public.)
- What has the company’s year-over-year growth been for the past 3-5 years?
- What are the company’s most important financial milestones/goals over the next 12-24 months?
VP of Sales, CMO/VP of Marketing: High-level growth picture
- Do you have a sense of the Total Addressable Market (TAM) of your businesses category / niche? (How much revenue opportunity is there in your space?)
- How much of the TAM would you say your company currently controls?
- What was the initial growth strategy of the business when the company first started, and why?
- How has your growth strategy evolved over time?
- What do you see as the major factors that contributed to your growth (when you first started and now)?
- Do you foresee those same factors continuing to play a role over the next 3-5 years? The next 5-10 years?
- What internal teams or external agencies played a huge role in that growth or success?
- How long has your company been gaining market share? By how much YoY? If losing, by how much YoY?
- What have been your most effective channels for growth to date?
- What have been your least effective channels for growth to date?
Director of Marketing: A more granular look into growth strategy/plans
- How does your company set goals and strategy around growth, expansion, and optimization of your business? Who does that? How often do you revisit this? Who sits in on this conversation from the marketing department?
- How does your business determine how much money each year you invest into the growth and expansion of the company?
- How much did the marketing department invest into growth last year (including all of the channels)?
- Has the amount you’ve invested into growth over the years fluctuated a lot or stayed pretty consistent? Why?
- How much of your marketing budget do you invest into offline vs. digital per year?
- Has the amount of money you’ve invested into digital fluctuated much year to year? Where do you attribute most of the fluctuation in spend to?
- How much of your digital marketing budget went to paid channels vs. other?
- Have you already or do you have plans to acquire companies to support your growth?
2. Convert bad project requests into great briefs
Here are the most typical reasons I have seen companies offer when requesting services from a search marketing agency:
- We want growth of traffic/conversions through our site.
- We are about to make a big change and we don’t want to lose traffic.
- We need to recover our traffic.
- We need your help to debug this problem we are experiencing.
- We would like you to do some research and help us make a decision (provide your expert opinion).
- We need your help to track, measure, and report on the impact of our efforts.
Clients often ask for the wrong things for a number of reasons:
- They don’t have enough first-hand experience with growing search visibility, or they have unrealistic expectations on how long this process would take for how much budget.
- They focus too much on the industry jargon they’ve read over the years. Or,
- They just do not have a deep enough understanding of what the business goals and objectives should be and why.
There is nothing wrong with this, but we should not let it stop us from focusing on the things that matter most. Business equates to revenue, and revenue increases lead to more confidence in your skill set.
For a specific example, if a client comes to you and asks you for links, reframe the conversation by asking them why they want links. Most clients ask for links for the following reasons:
- Links are important to increase the domain authority of the site and the probability you can rank for highly competitive keywords, which increases the organic traffic that will go to my site.
- Links are quantifiable/measurable (I’ve gotten x number of links in y amount of time for z price).
In this sample scenario, I would respond by saying links are an output you receive when you create great content. In order to deliver great content, you need to first start by understanding the data you have on-hand (via their CRM, customer surveys, their analytics, and their existing internal resources). The first step is for us to gain access to all this information in order for us to assess the potential opportunity this channel has on your business.
It is critical that you train your clients to talk in terms of business goals, objectives, and KPIs because that is the only opportunity in which they will allow you to determine the marketing strategy, rather than you becoming their outsourced vendor for a variety of different marketing activities like link building.
3. Research and know which channels to invest in
Once you have a concrete understanding of the business’s goals, objectives, and KPIs, it’s the search marketer’s job to determine which specific marketing channels are the ones the client should be investing in. Is the goal to generate the quickest possible ROI in the least amount of time? CRO. Is the goal to understand product-market fit? Then perhaps paid search is the best medium. Is the goal to build a community and brand awareness? Creative content + PR + social media.
It’s crucial to prioritize the specific marketing channels and activities that are most aligned with the company’s business goals, while simultaneously also being the channels you feel the most confident will deliver the highest likelihood of ROI for your client. The reason is because whenever a client first signs with an agency, the first 6 months are the trial period. The client has taken a risk by partnering with an agency and they want to ensure that it’s a good fit, that you follow your word, and that you’re able to deliver results. Essentially, they’re determining whether you are a good long-term partner for them.
Once you’re able to deliver meaningful results that are aligned with the client business goals and objectives, you’ve passed the trial period. After that, the client is much more likely to opt for longer-term, higher-budget activities because you’ve successfully demonstrated your knowledge and expertise in marketing. Bigger budgets often times mean larger access to resources, which again significantly increases the chances that you will be building a long-term, meaningful relationship with your client.
Clients want you to succeed in helping them achieve their marketing goals, but they will be selective about when and how they spend their time getting you what you need. We, as search marketers, need to get better at identifying the channels that will increase the probability of success during the first 6 months of the campaign, while demonstrating our ability to think critically by asking the right type of questions and gaining the important knowledge that will give us what we need to be successful at the beginning of the project.
Fight the urge to think that if I see success you will be rewarded later on. Although that sentiment is mostly true, if you don’t get enough of what you need to be successful in the first half of the project, you may not get to a point where you can create enough value to justify them keeping you around for follow up work. For instance, if you agree to build links for a client, it’s highly likely you’ll always be perceived as a link building vendor to the client. Great search marketers don’t just plan to be successful, they plan for all of the scenarios that could keep them becoming successful and structure in solutions to position them for an optimal outcome. This means we need to build a concrete understanding of how different marketing channels integrate with search and understanding when it is appropriate to invest into which channels. We can no longer operate in solely a search silo; ironically, in order for us to survive the future of search, we need to broaden our scope and play a much more strategic digital marketing role for us to generate returns in search for clients.
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