Optimize: To make the most effective, perfect, or best use of a situation, opportunity, or resource.
“We live in an age of information overload, rapid technology growth and constantly evolving consumer behaviors. Marketers need to understand the roots of these changes and how to apply the principles of optimization for a more customer centric content and social media marketing strategy.” – Lee Odden
For those who already familiar with Lee, he’s CEO of TopRank Online Marketing, specializing in Internet marketing consulting, training, and implementation services, including for large-scale enterprises (like Hewlett-Packard) and innovative startups. He’s considered one of the industry’s top thought leaders in search marketer and is a rather popular speaker on the speaking circuit, including his most recent talk at Search Engine Strategies New York earlier this year. I’ve been familiar with his work since we both got started in the industry circa 1997, and learned that this was his first stab at doing a book. So naturally I thought that would be a good place to start the questions
Why did you feel the need to write this book?
Even in our modern era of communications, having a tangible thing like a book is still a very useful asset and way to build credibility. I’m already seeing that happen with this book (even though advance copies of the book just came out this week).
I had originally been approached a number of years ago about writing a book. For a long time I always wondered, why would I want to do that? After all, I already have a blog with a lot of visitors and subscribers. Then a very smart and persuasive acquisition editor came along and worked with me for about a year off-and-on. I also had noticed that some friends of mine who had written books were getting some exposure and they were doing things that seemed interesting to me.
But the biggest reason (and there isn’t just one answer) was that I wanted to go through the experience. A number of authors I knew talked with me about how focused doing a book make them just with gathering and writing their research, and I wanted to go through that experience. It was my expectation that I would come out of it a lot smarter, having gone through the process.
It’s funny because I hadn’t actually started out wanting to write a book, so when someone convinced me, I had to think to myself, what was I going to write about?
How is your book unique?
Well, I noticed that a lot of other books are very tactical. A lot of them would go after just SEO, or just content marketing, or just social. With the exception of one I found that was self-published, there weren’t any other books I found that integrated the three. And mostly these books were covering them jsut from a tactical approach, rather than getting deeper into things like mission and strategy, or even purpose (and certainly not enough with understanding customers and the customer life cycle, which is integral to doing business.)
Why are you the person to write this book?
I noticed a lot in my own maturity in the industry over the past 15 years. I started back in 1997 doing SEO-related things; and what I was seeing working for companies was a lot more customer-centric activities, and not so much tactical-SEO, technical-SEO, or whatever. Now I think technical SEO will always have its place, of course, as long as there’s a platform; and there will always be a need for the “super users” of the platform. But I found what I could bring that was unique the table was my background in public relations, my experience in direct marketing, and my experience with online and search engine marketing together; and talk about, holistically, how content can serve as a vehicle to attract, engage, and inspire customers in how this doesn’t have to be an “either-or.” It doesn’t have to be deciding between content or SEO, or social or SEO — that’s bullshit! It’s the combination that serves almost as a force-multiplier, at least in my mind.
So based on my observations and experiences, and doing my own marketing for cliens, I thought that there was an interesting story to tell in bringing those things together. That’s what I think makes this book stand out.
You place a strong emphasis on your content/SEO/social trifecta to an underlying theme of customer care, and being customer-centric. Is this something that isn’t stressed enough with SEO, Social, and Content strategists today — compared to how much focus they give to reach and awareness?
Absolutely, and thank you for drawing attention to that. One of the key things in the book is the notion of optimizing not only across the buying cycle, but also over a customer’s entire lifecycle. A big turning point for me was when Forrester Research approached me a couple years ago to work with them on a white paper about this notion about customer lifecycle marketing, which I did again for them about 6 months ago.
(Watch this video of Forrester Research’s VP and Principal Analyst explain the customer life-cycle, business strategy, which he describes as switching from a sales-focused model to a relationship-focused model.)
In terms of SEO, people are searching for more reasons just to buy something, they’re searching for answers to problems with the things they already bought, they’re searching for jobs, they’re people are searching for information on a company… Google really is the doorway to discovery, and social is the doorway to engagement. So I think SEO is important for the top of the customer funnel, but also there’s a thing on the paid search end about optimizing where the customer is further on in the buying cycle. The problem is, you don’t see that so much in SEO.
But beyond that is across the customer lifecycle, which includes its own relationship-focused model from creating awareness, all the way to advocacy. My book talks about from the perspective that there are companies that are publishing content not just for the purpose of customer acquisition, but also content that is to help people engage, build communities, to help them get more out of the products and services that they’ve already bought; and also to retain them and help them actually be an advocate or evangelist for the brand.
You see, what’s missing with both search and social marketing that I want to convey is, that there needs to be more content related to all of those things throughout the customer lifecycle. Content you can publish can be optimized, and what you can search for can be optimized as well. So this whole notion of the customer-lifecycle, sort of the whole totality of optimization, means any kind of content, whether it’s to build top-funnel awareness of a product, to help out a regular customer that’s looking for resources with which they can better advocate for a brand – those are all “socialized” and “optimize” opportunities.
Do you find that certain “pitch” approaches with your customer-centric optimization strategy are better for persuading the decision makers, who may be more data-driven and have to look at the bottom line with business outcomes that produce, in their mind, tangible results?
I like to use a sports analogy. Imagine if the social Web was like baseball. You can look at all of the statistics that were heaped on players. You look at the movie, “Moneyball,” and how they used that data to sort of orchestrate a portfolio of players. I think that there’s that same kind of opportunity within the social Web to orchestrate a portfolio of digital or social media assets, according to what you’re trying to achieve – with different things for different audiences. Some of the value needs to go beyond the stepping stones with KPIs, and things that the company can track over time.
So by my own timeline, a 90-day mark was where we started our social activity; and at the same time we tracked things like the length of sales cycle, type of customer acquired, the profitability of a volume of order, even or metrics like returns and retention. So if you can plan for and gathering and measuring those kinds of metrics, then I think there’s a substantial amount of business appreciation, or appreciation from a business standpoint, for those things. That’s simply because those things speak to money. They’re either a reflection of increased profitability, or they’re a reflection of cost.
Let me give you a key example: When we talk about optimizing customer service, we can talk about optimizing our online FAQ and other informational content, so that more customers are getting their answers online instead of picking up the phone. That’s a cost deflection, and there’s real, measurable business value to that.
Some thought leaders in online marketing – Mari Smith being one of them – have suggested the future of optimization as a business strategy will more on our “soft skills” – thinks like a person’s emotional IQ and their relationship abilities– rather than the “hard skills” for technical mastery? Do you agree with that?
Absolutely. I speak in the book about having an “optimized state of mind.” A good part of that includes the ability to adapt to change. A lot of change has happened in the SEO world already. I think the soft skills, the personality side, is something that you need to optimize, too. I think there’s data that can help you — although the data being applied to soft skills isn’t necessarily how I approach it in the book. What I do is I talk about and empathizing with customers about characteristics of the audiences that you’re after, what they care about, what their pain points are, what their goals are; and articulating your unique selling proposition, and injecting storytelling into the way it is what you do, and how you’ll solve problems and how you’ll be a valuable resource – why you matter, really, accordingly.
When I think about optimizing one’s soft skills, I think that blends well into the notion of someone who is a relatable person. A brand has a personality, and there are people who are “brandividuals” within that company that mean something to me (as a customer), and I do place a lot of value on that.
What do you see as the big misconception or oversight with “optimization” practices in business today – be it SEO, Social, Content Marketing – all of the above?
That would be placing the cart ahead of the horse. In other words, the big mistake that continues to be perpetuated often is having the “what” before the asking the “why” and (for) “who?” Basically, focusing on tactics before the mission and the strategy, and learning about the target audience, is a big ongoing mistake.
Let’s take for example, content strategy. The thing I see mentioned a lot today is an increase in SEO people talking about content marketing. Their perception of content marketing seems to be, have more and more content. In the PR world, they’re looking at content from a social context, because they want more media pickups, and that sort of thing. In the general business ecosystem, a lot of focus is being given on the technologies’ content and custom publishing capabilities, and having that define for us what content marketing is. What’s missing from all of that is this notion of understanding of customers. No one is asking the “why?”
That’s what’s caused the problem with much of marketing today – focusing too much on the technologies and tactics, rather than taking the time to better understand audiences and customers. Too many marketers’ thinking is just tactically – how you come up with keywords, or how you come of with all of these different tactics of media formats and methods of optimization, or how to “go viral,” and so-on. They go into all of the “how-to’s” but without really going into the “why” and for “who?”
With your own user experience background, you had to build a business case or a user case for a design or something like that, right? You might model that after the common characteristics of people –- consumer or business characteristics — and call that a “persona” or whatever. That’s one thing that’s missing from an awful lot of dialogue happening right now, when you’re talking about the optimization needs to be a lot more customer-centric.
Do you think that too much marketing today is content-driven without a follow-up and ongoing communication plan?
What’s the point of putting content out there if you’re not willing to continue the dialogue, and turn it into something amazing? It’s like planting seeds, really. People are dropping seeds all over the place, and they want to make them grow but they don’t really do anything to make them grow and bear fruit, over and over again. They’re just assuming that if this stuff is going to increase traffic, that it’s so much like “spaghetti against the wall,” that by sheer increase in volume, we’re going to get more sales.
We should realize that’s not enough. Even if you’re putting out interesting content, if you fail to engage with consumers afterwards and continually, if you fail to talk with them directly, they you’re missing out on customers. Many of them may stop talking about you at all.
You argue customer-centric is essential to doing search, social, and content marketing. But when do you decide you need to building marketing strategies that are leading them, rather than always being led BY them?
One thing I was going to add about being customer centric is, there’s a time and a place to being reactionary, for being totally empathetic with customers; and there’s also a time and place to take the lead because customers sometimes don’t know what they want, especially in situations when you’re defining a new category. One of the things I made certain with the book is I wanted people to think that I think that customers should lead the way all the time; because it is true so often that they just have no idea, and it can be very difficult getting the data. But I think there are lots and lots more opportunities to be far more customer-centric about how we do go approaching running a business.
Finally, what is your goal with this book? What do you hope to accomplish with someone who reads it?
For myself, clearly I want this book to be a marketing asset for my agency and provide good thought leadership. But from a bigger picture standpoint, what I hope to do is change the conversation about what optimization means (or perhaps, what it should mean). I think there’s a tremendous amount of value in the sort of adaptable perspective that a lot of internet marketers have, but I think that it’s really focused on the micro — this tiny little percentage of advantage — versus taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture of things.
One of the things I like to say in my presentations is, yes, Google dominates search, but should it dominate your marketing? I guess if you have to fish where the fish are then that might be true. But instead of optimizing for a search engine, why not optimize for customers and experiences and outcomes? Because when you optimize for those things, it transcends search engines; it transcends social networks; it transcends content; it even transcends marketing. When you’re focused on those things, you’re always going to be a step ahead. You’re always focused on “why” and not so much just on “how” (although the how is still important.) So I hope to affect the conversation, so to speak, because I think there’s a lot of really interesting things that can happen.
The world is changing so fast, with technology, consumer behaviors, and the trends – all of them are changing so fast. It’s easier to get caught up in distractions and shiny objects, and trying to find the signal from the noise. I think that there’s a lot of businesses that are trying to make sense of that today and this book can help. What I’m saying in there is not mutually exclusive of technical knowledge — not at all. It’s in concert with technical knowledge. These things work together. That’s why even tactically bringing search, social, and content together as common disciplines all around being customer-centric ends up being a multiplier, versus being when you try to do these things on their own (in silos) and without asking the “why” and the “who.”
Those are some foundational concepts that will live for a while that are included in the book, and I hope the people who read it will feel the same way.