Sometimes in life, getting smacked in the face with a 2×4 of truth is the best thing for us. No one really likes brutal honesty, but the fact of the matter is, it is usually the only way to really grow.
This is as true in the online marketing space as it is in any other realm of life. It never ceases to amaze me how often we as digital marketers (and SEOs especially) can entirely miss the point of what we are trying to do. In a world filled with ROIs, CPCs, KWs, CTRs, YoY growth and about a million other horrible-sounding metrics, it is incredibly easy to lose sight of what actually matters in the online space.
With that in mind, here are five harsh truths to (hopefully) make us all better digital marketers. I am not casting stones. This is stuff I have messed up about a million times. As much as anything, these represent some lessons I have been trying to preach to myself everyday.
#1: Your Online Audience Is Incredibly Self-Centered
Visitors to your website or media channels care about one thing: themselves. That can be a tough pill to swallow, but this is vital to understand if you are trying to figure out how to leverage digital marketing for your business.
Just think about your own search behavior. When you are browsing the internet, I can pretty much guarantee that you are 100% focused on your interests, your likes, your needs, your curiosity, or your desires. It doesn’t really matter what you are looking for: entertainment, news, sports, information, training, adult things (ahem!), or if you are simply focusing on winning the argument on your favorite forum.
The point is, internet browsing is an inherently self-centered activity. When I am online, I care about one thing: me. The same is true for your site visitors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a reality of the digital world.
Want some proof? Think about the 5 most trafficked sites on the internet. What do they all have in common? They are each uncompromisingly focused on catering to our selfish needs:
- Google: Literally answers any question you have about any topic at any time.
- Facebook: Narcissism on a level the world has never seen before.
- YouTube: Like Google, but with a lot more funny videos of cats.
- Baidu: The Chinese Google.
- Yahoo: A custom portal to any type of information you could ever want.
The important step for marketers is to both recognize and understand that self-centered behavior is the inherent, unyielding mindset of your consumers.
Or, as PR expert Michelle Ellis at Oraphin Marketing puts it, “The only question you should be answering about your customers is, ‘Why should people give a damn about you?’”
Lesson Learned: Give people what they want (or need).
For a long time, traditional online marketing argued that content is king. But in today’s world, I’ll argue that a better stance to take is that utility is king.
What does that mean? Well, ‘utility’ is nothing more than creating something which is “useful, profitable, or beneficial” to others. It is all about catering to your audience and what they uniquely care about online. Before making anything, we need to stop and recognize that our first mission is to give the people what they want.
Let’s look at how Vail Resorts markets their Epix Mix program to illustrate this concept of utility.
Epic Mix is a full-service platform devoted to tracking, supporting, and logging every detail of a ski day. It tracks how many runs you took, where you took them, how many vertical feet you skied in a day, etc.
But beyond just the ski stats, it also has all kinds of other cool features for users. This includes things like: a link to traffic info, lodging and food information, unique “pins” that you can earn for doing various achievements, and even on-mountain photographers to take shots of your day.
All of this information is synced to a user’s unique profile associated with their pass. Therefore, even though many of the features of Epic Mix happen in an offline environment, the core of the program is focused around the digital space.
The point of the example is that Vail Resorts is catering to what people want. They essentially figured out all of the vital pieces that users cared about on a ski day, and then designed apps, websites, photos, and content to uniquely cater to that. They are leveraging the self-centered focus of a skier to simply give users the content they want.
(Side note: In fairness, I will mention that many users were initially turned off to Epic Mix when it rolled out due to seeming, well, just a bit too “big-brotherish.” While you could argue this is true, once it got rolling the vast majority of people seemed to joyfully accept the tracking by our ski-overlords. The program just provides too much good info about what we all love best: ourselves.)
So, the next time that you are thinking about doing anything marketing-related online, try asking yourself one of these questions first:
- What do my site visitors actually care about?
- What can I create that helps solves searchers questions or problems?
- Is this content actually useful or helpful to people?
- Is this content people actually want?
- Would I spend any time with this content on my own in my personal life?
#2: Your Visitors Do Not Care about You
A natural consequence of your site visitors being self-centered is that they do not care about you, your message, or your brand.
Like, at all.
The fact is, the vast majority of websites (and businesses) focus way too much time on themselves and their message. They completely forget about Truth #1 (your audience is self-centered) and make the mistake of assuming that visitors actually care about them, what they are selling, or how they are selling it.
Remember Marketing 101: no one likes to be sold to, but everyone likes to buy.
Take a brand like Road Runner Sports, for example. I am a runner and subscribe to their email newsletter. I do so pretty much 100% because they periodically send out killer coupons for my favorite running shoes. Pretty simple.
However, Road Runner Sports has made shoving their brand down user’s throats into a science. I get an email a day from them every day. Every. Single. Day.
Occasionally they have good deals, but more often than not they are simply cramming their promotions, products, and brand messages in my face. It’s exhausting, and frankly, it’s very off-putting. They made the mistake of thinking I really care about their brand, instead of what their brand can do for me (i.e.: give me good deals on shoes).
When marketing like this happens, you get a lot of content that is boring, self-centered, uninteresting, or just borderline creepy in its attempt to connect with you.
Lesson Learned: Build loyalty by being awesome. Not by begging for it.
Here is a better approach: in everything that you do online, strive to be awesome.
Instead of focusing so much on your message, ask yourself this question instead: “What is the unique value you provide that no one else does?” (Question courtesy of Moz)
Think about how to create something that is truly great. Think about making something that people will naturally get excited about. Think about what your world needs and go do that.
Need an example? Check out a site like www.agoodmovietowatch.com. It’s pretty simple: if you don’t know what movie to watch, they will help you decide by using some really cool questions and interactive tools. It’s great! They do very little to try to promote their brand, rather, their brand is promoted, shared, and liked simply by being awesome. This is precisely the type of content that works, because it is focused on being great first. (PS: That site is legit – go check it out.)
Remember, the purpose of your website is not to build a relationship. The purpose of your website is to get your consumers the information they want as quickly as possible.
People care about how awesome your content is, not about the message you are trying to promote. If you start with this premise, more often than not, your audience will fall in love with your brand simply because of all the awesome things you do, not because you begged for it.
#3: People Can Smell Your Bullshit from a Mile Away
Have you ever been browsing your favorite social media site and come across a link which is simply irresistible? You know you shouldn’t, but you just can’t resist that combination of a perfect click-bait title, not to mention the suggestive picture practically begging you to make the click.
Ok, so you gave in. It’s alright – admission is the first step.
Now tell me: what kind of website do you see?
I can almost guarantee you that the site you landed on is complete crap. It is probably 95% ads, it gave you a popup window, you can’t find the content you were promised, and there is a small slide-show hidden somewhere which forces you to click 18 times (with an ad every third slide) just to see the full list. Spam. Terrible. Yuk.
Now ask yourself: how likely are you to want to engage with this site and its messaging in any way whatsoever? If you are like the 99.9% of other users out there, you will be so put off by their disingenuous approach that you will want nothing to do with them. You recognize that all they care about is trying to manipulate you into a certain type of behavior or action.
(Side note: Thankfully, Facebook took steps to clean up this sort of content last year, but that doesn’t mean plenty of these sites still don’t exist online, just waiting to waste 2 minutes of your day.)
The point is, sites which are designed only to sell, manipulate, or push spammy content are not only ineffective for digital marketing, they are usually as immediately obvious to users as the fact that Tom Brady is the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
Lesson Learned: In everything you do, be genuine.
Being genuine online has to be one of the most underutilized, misunderstood tactics in existence. Most of the time, marketers, brands, and companies are so hell-bent on trying to promote themselves, that they forget the #1 thing that makes people engage in any relationship: Trust.
People will not be motivated to engage and interact with your digital marketing channels simply because of what you are offering. They want to feel, experience, and know that there is something more genuine behind it. They want to know that they can trust your brand promise and all that it stands for.
Simon Sinek sums up this concept perfectly in his argument that “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Simon’s Golden Circle concept illustrates that people are much more likely to be attracted to why you do something long before they will care about how you do it or what it is.
The first step to winning trust is to understand what drives everything you are doing in the digital marketplace – your internal ‘why’. If you figure that out, all of your online marketing efforts can then flow outwards from this with a renewed sense of genuineness and purpose. Usually, this approach is not only refreshing, but more importantly, it is instantly recognizable to your audience.
To me, one of the best examples of this is Chipotle. Chipotle was founded on the premise of doing food in a more ethical, honest, and environmentally friendly way. Their Food with Integrity campaign can be found in virtually every facet of their online marketing efforts. But more importantly, Chipotle actually puts their money where their mouth is when it comes to this principle. Earlier this year they suspended the serving of carnitas after one of their pork suppliers failed to comply with their animal welfare standards.
As a result of this (and many other actions like it), they have generated huge PR, publicity, and awareness around the brand online as people have reacted. Rather than just making an empty statement about their values, they were genuine in standing up for them.
Compared to most of the junk that is online, this refreshing approach will be irresistible to your target audience.
#4: Few People are Willing to Give Online (but everyone expects to receive)
As we have established, the internet is a very selfish place.
Another interesting consequence of this is that your users and target audience will usually expect (if not demand) that the content they are looking for be immediately accessible at any given time. We have an expectation that whatever information we need will be immediately provided to us at the drop of a hat. And if it’s not, we tend to get angry.
Ironically, despite this expectation, the approach many digital marketers still take is to try to “sell, sell, sell” instead of “give, give, give”. I think we tend to convince ourselves that if we just all of a sudden start giving stuff away, it will undermine everything we are trying to accomplish. We are the Scrooge McDucks of content hoarding.
When this happens, you end up with a colossal misfire between user needs and your expertise.
Think about it: Your users have needs. They will gladly pledge their loyalty, trust, and business towards the very first spot online that helps them fulfill those needs.
You have the expertise and/or a product. That expertise is the perfect match for what users want.
Except instead of thinking about how to most efficiently get our expertise to the market, our tendency is to make users jump through all kinds of hoops before we are willing to even consider giving them something useful. They might occasionally play ball and do something you are manipulating them into (e.g. form fill outs, newsletter sign ups, watching an ad, etc.), but more often than not, they will simply move along to the next best site that can help them instead.
Lesson Learned: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
This situation creates a big opportunity. Namely: you should never be afraid to give stuff away and be generous with your talents and skills.
Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons. But I submit that the best reason is simply that so few people are actually doing this. In an environment where most marketers, companies, and users are afraid (or simply unwilling) to be generous, you have a major opportunity to be the exception to the rule.
Too many people assume that by giving up their knowledge and assets they are forfeiting their leverage. The reality is, by giving things away you have an opportunity to attract a group of experts, users, and potential leads to your brand like never before. By being one of the few online players who doesn’t keep a death grip on their ‘stuff’, you suddenly become more useful, more informative, more helpful, and more valuable to your audience.
What that ‘stuff’ is, or how you do this is entirely up to you. Here are 15 very tangible ideas I came up with:
15 Ways to be Generous Online
- Become a respected regular on a forum, like William Harvey on Webmaster Central.
- Start and/or moderate a forum, as Eric Wu does for technical SEO.
- Answer questions on sites like Quora or Help a Reporter Out.
- Read this book, which was recommended to a V9er by Alan Eustace, Google’s Senior VP of knowledge.
- If you do any kind of testing or experimentation, don’t be afraid to share your results with the community, as Dan Petrovick does.
- Never be afraid to link from your site to other cool pieces of content, no matter how random the topic may be.
- Host an industry-specific meetup group, like Phil Buckley’s in North Carolina.
- Get involved with your local community by doing service projects. Like this or this or this or this.
- Find a venue where you can speak and add value to the community, like V9’s own Natalie Henley did at SES Denver.
- Leverage your skills to create something useful for a community, like Reddit user Shitty_Watercolour did. (This eventually turned into a full-time job for him.)
- Give something (actually) valuable away to your audience.
- Give legitimate, useful answers to leads well before they are customers.
- Share as many leads as you can with other companies you respect in your community.
- Teach a college class.
- Create a scholarship.
Or literally, anything else that involves even a hint of altruism and helping others.
The point is to do so with a keen sense of enlightened self-interest. You do this because it is a way to engage with people in a unique way. You do it because users are inescapably attracted to sincere generosity. You do it because brands build loyalty by being awesome, and treating others how you want to be treated is simply, awesome.
#5: Your Visitors Will Usually Only Talk about You if You Suck (or if you are really, really amazing)
Have you ever seen one of those viral stories where a business does something really, really bad and then the word gets out? What happens? They get absolutely eviscerated online, that’s what. It’s scary.
Take the example of a small hotel and wedding venue in New York called the Union Street Guest House. The fine folks over at Union Street thought it would be a shrewd marketing idea to impose a $500 fine upon the wedding party if they, or any of their guests, wrote a negative review of the hotel online. I’m not kidding.
What this poor hotel was about to learn was the enormous power of anonymous, vindictive internet citizens.
The story went viral and people lashed out from all over the world in the only way they could: Yelp Reviews (<– definitely worth reading for the lolz). This poor business acquired dozens and dozens of terrible, nasty, mean, and (sometimes) downright hilarious negative reviews from folks who were hell-bent on nothing more that getting some good old-fashioned revenge. It didn’t matter that most had no connection to the hotel whatsoever. In their minds, the hotel was the devil and they were going to let the world know it.
And, it looks like the people have “won” this case, as the $500 fine policy has been removed from their site.
The point of that story (and many others like it) is that usually, the only way to get people to talk about your brand is if you really, really suck. It is certainly not everyone, but a small (and very vocal) minority of your users would love nothing more than to lash out. And given the chance, usually, they will.
There is a TON information online about how to do solid reputation management, so I won’t get into the full gamut of how to handle negative reviews. But some quick internet searches provide a wealth of information such as: how to manage local reviews, lists of reputation management monitoring tools, advice for how to think of bad reviews in general, and a whole lot more.
(Side note: Volume Nine recently partnered with a company called Connectivity to help our customers manage local reviews. Their customer intelligence tool not only allows businesses to track and monitor their reviews online, but more importantly, it has a number of cool solutions to help capture and respond to negative sentiment before it even hits the web.)
Suffice it to say, reputation management is a very important space to be thinking about.
Lesson Learned: A good online reputation and positive reviews are huge, massively important.
Being afraid of negative press is only half the story. If negative reviews have the power to destroy, positive feedback has an equal (if not greater) power to help build and grow.
We only need to look to science to prove this to be true. In study after study, research shows that online reviews are incredibly important to consumers online. How important? Well, here are just a few stats to chew on:
- 90% of customers say buying decisions are influenced by online reviews.
- 79% of consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations.
- 60% of online shoppers said they consult reviews prior to purchasing consumer electronics.
- 40% of online shoppers claimed that they would not even buy electronics without seeking reviews about the product online first.
In other words, what people are saying about you in the marketplace (usually measured by reviews) really, really matters.
As digital marketers, we need to understand that our target audience is going to do their homework in order to find out as much about us as possible. Moreover, they are going to put a tremendous amount of value in what they find other people are saying about us online. In almost all cases, people online tend to put a lot of stock into others’ opinions.
Therefore, this should be a massive point of emphasis for most marketers. There are few more meaningful things we can do for our websites, brands, and customers than help improve their internet reputations and reviews online.
How to do this? There are about a million ways. Most of them have already been listed somewhere online, but here are 10 of my ideas:
10 Ideas to Generate Positive Reviews
- Don’t be afraid to ask. Especially from your best customers or partners.
- Incentivize them. (But be careful to do it genuinely).
- Use a service like OnFire to help generate good reviews via the phone.
- Make it incredibly easy to leave a review.
- Create a testimonials video from your favorite customers and partners.
- Use a company like Satrix Solutions to understand your net promoter score and garner customer feedback.
- Make some awesome case studies.
- Be sure all your off-line reviews have a way to show up online somewhere.
- Be active on all your social profiles. People won’t review a dead space.
- Put links to leave reviews in your email signature.
Bonus Lesson: The best marketing is to let others do it for you.
But all this focus on reviews is really only highlighting an even more fundamental marketing truth: the best marketing is to let others do it for you.
From the beginning of time, people have placed the utmost value on the opinions of others. The digital world is no different. The days of content marketing, blogging, and SEO acting independently from a solid PR strategy are over. In today’s world, these strategies must be aligned if we hope to spread and win positive sentiment for our brands and content on the internet.
PR people will laugh at most digital marketers, and rightfully so, for just now figuring this out. For years and years, they have known that the single best way to promote any brand, product, or idea is by leveraging other people to do it for you. What other people do, say, and think about you has a huge influence on how others perceive you.
In light of the importance of reviews and reputation, never forget that one of the best ways to influence this is through an awesome PR strategy aligning with everything else you are doing online.
The average internet user sees more shit pushed at them on a daily basis than that Temple in Taiwan which recently banned Chinese tourists from the restroom for pooping on the floors. It is incredible just how much crap our audiences have to put up with from people like us.
As digital marketers, it is my firm belief that we have one of two options: we can either contribute to the pile, or we can fight to do it differently.
Contributing to the pile is almost effortless. Like it or not, making junk content, talking about ourselves, forgetting what people care about, and hoarding information is the easy path. Unfortunately, this stuff just isn’t working online.
I propose a new approach. A better way. A way that involves catering to what people want. A way that focuses on being genuine and awesome. A way that gives. A way that harnesses our raving fans to spread the word.
Doing it that way is decidedly not easy, but I believe it is worth it.