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Some brands, by their nature, find it hard to build a social profile and reap the SEO benefits. One way round this is to build a community of peers and competitors rather than customers.
‘Stop writing for other writers.’
When Don Draper of Mad Men drops this bomb on copywriter Paul Kinsey, you can see Kinsey’s ego collapse like a failed soufflé. For a marketing creative, the accusation that your work is inward-looking, clever-clever and irrelevant to real-world customers cuts deep.
But that was 1961. Fast-forward 50 years, and writing for your peer group could be your ticket to ride high in the rankings. Let me explain.
Customers not listening
When I started blogging and tweeting, I assumed (rather naïvely) that I’d be interacting with potential clients. They’d read my stuff, see how clever I was, and give me a load of work. Or so I thought...
I soon realised that while a few did check my blog before they called, most of my prospects simply didn’t go to the social space to find suppliers. Instead, they gravitated towards people they shared interests with: friends, colleagues and industry peers. When they needed a copywriter, they’d Google it.
The people who were really interested in my content, and who formed my most natural circle, were other writers. When they liked my blog posts, they’d share them, link to them and invite me to write guest posts, particularly if they were too geographically distant to be a direct competitor.
Soon, I was consciously orienting my blog and Tweets to fellow writers instead of imaginary interested customers. The standard of my content improved, because I could write in detail and in depth instead of churning out me-too entry-level guides.
I really was ‘writing for other writers’ – but because it helped develop my social-media circle and (as a result) my natural search profile, it made perfect business sense.
Every business is exhorted to ‘join the conversation’ and ‘build a community’ – most emphatically, it must be said, by those with a vested interest. But for some brands, engagement isn’t just a matter of will.
The exemplars we hear most about are, almost invariably, consumer brands that already have significant positive equity. But the fact that selection-purchase brands like Pepsi or Old Spice can generate social buzz does not mean that distress-purchase brands like Anusol or Dignity will be able to.
While people may know and respect these ‘distress’ brands, they’re unlikely to want to engage with them outside the core buying process. If your brand is associated with embarrassment or despair, the best brand values you can hope for are trust, comfort and authority. Fun and excitement are off the radar; the default light-hearted tone of social media simply isn’t appropriate and won’t engage.
Many B2B brands are in a similar position, either because of the nature of their product, the situation of their audience, or both.
It’s a problem that some brands overcome with sheer above-the-line muscle, as with the Compare the Meerkat campaign. If your product (insurance) doesn’t excite people, you can always bolt on an expensive, entertaining but ultimately irrelevant chunk of positive brand equity. But not every brand has that kind of cash to spend.
This could be one of the most unfair impacts of Google’s Farmer update (covered in my last post), Google's integration of social signals with Google+1 and the firm's other possible future moves towards social. A brand and its site may be genuinely relevant to web users, but inherently unable to generate social buzz or backlinks, and therefore penalised in the search rankings. Google aims to gauge relevancy, but can’t do it directly, so it uses online popularity as a proxy measure. But a relevant brand might not be popular, and vice versa.
So what can unpopular but relevant brands do to get some social action?
One of my SEO and content clients is in pest control. This is a classic distress purchase, like insurance and funerals – when you need it, you really need it, but until then you really don’t want to think about it. Getting followers and blog comments around pest control is tough, even for big brands.
Take Rentokil, the leading pest control company which was recently featured on Econsultancy. It uses social media in an exemplary way; the blog is about as entertaining as you can get while still talking about killing rats and creepy-crawlies.
As an industry leader, Rentokil’s social content appeals strongly to similar firms. On Twitter, @rentokil has (at the time of writing) 1072 followers. Of those, 275 are in pest control or related trades.
Rentokil also has a more ‘social’ account, @debugged, that seems to be aimed more at consumers; it has 173 followers as I write, 41 of whom are in pest control. The rest of the followers of both accounts are a varied mix, from obvious spammers and indiscriminate followers through to bug-studying academics and personal users.
My gut feeling is that potential customers probably make up a relatively small part of the @rentokil and @debugged communities. But that’s not a problem. Peer-group followers, while unlikely to be customers, are much more likely to share, comment and link to industry-specific content.
And that means companies like Rentokil can still have a happening community, even though consumers might not see huge appeal in the brand.
That’s why my work for my own pest-control client, from the outset, has been 100% focused on networking with peer businesses around the world. Blog posts like this one are link bait aimed squarely at fellow professionals. If customers like them, that’s great – but it’s not the core aim.
Many of my client's competitors have flat, static brochure sites and no social presence at all. With a few linkable and tweetable posts, it should be possible to enhance my client's natural search profile and, as a result, connect with more customers at the time they need the brand.
With a limited budget, this makes a lot more sense than trying to generate positive equity around a brand that consumers don’t naturally love.
Know your aims
With content marketing and social media, it’s important to know what you’re aiming for. ‘Joining the conversation’ without knowing why could be a huge waste of resources. Many brands might enter the social space in the hope of directly generating new business, as I did, and find disappointment.
But if their prospects aren’t interested in social interactions with them, they still have a chance to develop high-quality content oriented to peers that could build reputation and deliver solid SEO benefit.