Web marketing is a complicated mash of disciplines that, fortunately for businesses, creates the best results when brands focus on all areas. Unfortunately for those who specialize in one area of web marketing, it’s not always so easy to explain what you do, where your discipline stops and another one starts.
Lots of people in the search marketing industry (and beyond) specialize, though. Specializations are what make experts. Know your discipline inside and out and how it fits into the big picture, and make sure you talk about it every which way until you’ve made your point.
So I should be able to explain this. I make a living explaining things through the written word. I’ve written and taught about my particular discipline, content, and how it relates to SEO and the big picture of marketing and branding countless times.
But I was absolutely at a loss for words the other day when a prospect came to me asking for SEO. Why? Because I could help him. He found me because he searched for “SEO to do list” online and found an article I wrote last year on, well, an SEO to-do list. But this was when I worked at the SEO firm, Bruce Clay, Inc.
“I figured if anyone knew SEO, it would be the person who showed up No. 1 for that search,” he said. I cringed a little for several reasons.
Understanding SEO is both super beneficial for what I offer on the content side, and also so terribly confusing that I could likely just straight up sell “SEO services.”
But that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I want my clients to look at the big picture of their brand and their audience, and understand how content and communications can get them to where they want to go.
The way we’d go about doing it is just the details. Yes, all that tactical SEO stuff that helps Google do its job better needs to be considered. And if it’s within my ability, I can do it for my clients or advise them on how to go about doing it. And that’s where it gets confusing.
So I think it’s safe to say that around 5 p.m. on Thursday of last week, I was having an identity crisis.
Same Goals, Different Mindset?
The thing that was most challenging for me on that phone call with the prospect was that we both wanted the same outcome: a usable site that’s easily understood by search engines and provides a great experience to visitors while also building authority for his brand on-site and through visibility in other channels.
But I didn’t want to sell SEO.
We talked for nearly an hour while I tried to explain how online content and communications integrated with SEO goals. We talked keywords, on-page optimization and making pages crawlable. But we also touched on what’s beyond that: building great content for those keywords that offers something useful for that query.
But still, the question came up about things like rankings and PageRank and so on and so forth. In trying to move the conversation away from those ideas and onto the bigger picture, I started to confuse myself.
And don’t even get me started on how much I wanted to kill all the confusing content on the services page at that time.
Does This Make Me an SEO?
I believe, based on this prospect’s business goals, we could achieve most of what he needed initially through my services (yes, even those SEO needs, like traffic). I wanted us to focus on building and promoting his brand as well as solving problems through content in the following key areas: his website, a blog, social media and authoritative industry sites.
I wanted to make sure his site’s content was organized well and written in a way that not only builds relevance for topics a search engine could understand, but also offers an engaging experience for users. It also had to take into account what his brand feels like, who the personas are visiting his site and at what stage of the conversion funnel they’re at.
I wanted him to get into the habit of adding fresh content on his site through a blog so that search engines and users keep coming back; so he could build an audience and brand around talking about the things that mattered to his users and showcasing all the great work he was doing for people.
And I wanted to make sure all the social networks appropriate to his brand, and where his audience was participating, were identified, set up, optimized and well-integrated into the site. And that he had a communications strategy in place to help build relationships and visibility there, ultimately driving traffic back to his site.
And of course, we would set up metrics to track progress and analyze the data on a consistent basis.
Does this make me an SEO? I don’t know. Is it kind of like, “you say ‘potato,’ I say ‘potato’”:
(Hat tip to Michelle Lowery for finding this amazing SNL clip to illustrate my point.)
There are some what I would consider really great, specialized and technical-minded SEOs out there. And I do not put myself in their category. While some SEOs may focus on the more technical side of things and not content, here we start with the content and marketing, and work backwards into the SEO as it relates to the performance of that content.
So, what does that mean?
Identity Crises, Boundaries and Education
I wonder if other web marketers are having an identity crisis from time to time, and how they deal with it. The lines are so blurred, where does one stop and the other start?
And more importantly, how do you set boundaries when you are trying to specialize?
Yesterday at Search Engine Watch, Mark Jackson wrote an article on the idea that it’s not what you do in SEO, but how you do it. Building on that idea, I may not be selling “SEO services,” but in the end, the goal is essentially the same: marketing your brand online. And this interview with Eric Enge reiterates the idea that others are heading into a more marketing mindset, too.
[And after writing this, I saw this post from Nathan Safran that shows survey data on where people believe content creation should fall within an organization and its SEO.]
I think, as marketers, the way we talk about SEO and web marketing is key. But the education that lies ahead of us in order to explain these marketing concepts as they relate to SEO or whatever online marketing thing a person is after is going to be feat.
And first things first: being able to explain it well. So I’m asking you, specializers in web marketing (or any discipline for that matter): How do you do it? Specifically, where and when do you set boundaries in your discipline, if at all, and how do you build that into what you sell?
Seeking your wisdom in the comments below or reach out to me on social to chat. Thanks!
Michelle Lowery says
I run into this from time to time as well, Jessica. I think the fact that people will approach us–we who identify ourselves as content creators–and ask for SEO or other related but disparate services means this confusion is pretty widespread.
To answer your question about setting boundaries:
The way I draw the line isn’t by trying to determine where one service stops and another starts–they’re all symbiotic. And it’s not whether I’m qualified to provide SEO as well as create content. I draw the line according to what I want to provide my clients. Right now, that’s simply high-quality content.
Yes, some elements of SEO are included in that (optimization, title and description tags, proper structure and organization, etc.). But although I could look through a site and determine whether those SEO elements are being used correctly, I choose not to do that right now so I can focus my efforts on new content.
During a recent conversation about content improvement and creation, a prospect asked me about social media account management. Can I do that? Yes. Is it an important element of content marketing? Absolutely. Am I going to do it? No. Instead, I will refer him to someone who can.
And this is how I deal with those clients who want the whole huge digital marketing package–I network with others who provide those services I don’t want to provide myself (at least right now). If someone asks me for a content strategy, I refer them to you. 😉 If someone needs social media management, an SEO audit, or anything else I’m either not inclined to do, or I don’t feel I’m enough of an expert to do, I’ll send them to someone who specializes in that. By doing so, I’m still helping that client rather than just turning them down and leaving them to find someone on their own.
I would rather apply a laser-like focus to the parts of content creation I’m really good at–and enjoy–than spread myself too thin by trying to be everything to everyone. And if I can send some business to people who are really good at those services, and whom I respect, then I’m happy to do so. And maybe sometime when they get a request for content which really isn’t their bag, they’ll return the favor. 🙂
Jessica Lee says
Thanks for your insight! I respect your approach. Not trying to be all things at once is level-headed and is required of those who choose to specialize, right? I love being able to refer business, but I’m also at times conflicted if I can do it myself. What I need to do is take a hard look at my business’s capabilities, what we can do, what’s enjoyable, what we’re great at and what we don’t do or don’t like to do, and go from there.
It’s funny because I thought I had already defined that, but the conversations I’ve had with prospects lately have thrown me off big time. It’s easy when you get the clients who just “get it,” but they are the ideal situation. These conversations with business owners that come from all backgrounds and levels of knowledge about marketing, SEO and content really challenge me, and I think that’s probably a good thing.
As always, enjoy talking with you, Michelle!
… Oh and I LOVED that clip, so I added it — with a hat tip to you, of course! Thanks!
Michelle Lowery says
I know exactly what you mean–I feel that same conflict of referral. Yeah, I can do content strategy/social media management/on-site optimization/fill in the blank. But that’s why I’ve had to base the specialization question upon what I *want* to do, and what I *like* to do rather than on what I’m capable of. A big part of why I’m building my own business is to be able to do what I really enjoy.
I’m also a firm believer that the more you enjoy your work, the better the quality of that work. I don’t want to go through the motions of social media management when I could be writing. The client’s going to get a much better product from me if I’m doing what I love.
And I enjoy talking with you! I’m grateful to count you as a colleague and friend, and it’s wonderful to be able to have these discussions with someone who gets it! 🙂
Hahaha! I love that you added that clip! Hard to go wrong with Christopher Walken. 😀
Michelle Lowery says
P.S. When I saw your reference to “you say potato…” I was hoping it would be this: http://iheartjimmy.wordpress.com/2010/02/27/potato-potahto/ (From about 1:15) 😀
I’m in your boat a bit, Jessica. I have clients who just want finite amounts of work or (gasp) to just focus on one social media channel when all their digital properties need serious attention. You have to draw the line around the dollars, doing the kind of work you want to do (and not getting pegged in a hole of expertise that keeps you “specialized” if you want to do the broader visioning work).
What makes your heart happy? If a client wants just a piece of your expertise and only that, is their feather a fashionable fit for the cap of expertise you want to wear? Is their project something for the long haul? And yes, just because you write about something doesn’t mean I know it authoritatively enough to provide it as a service.
Jessica Lee says
Hi, Rachel! Thanks for joining the convo. It’s great to hear your perspective. You make an excellent point. I suppose I haven’t thought about what makes me happy (good to do), rather, I’ve been focusing on making the business grow. But, without that clear cut path about where I want it to go, situations like this with new business will always present a challenge for me. So that’s another takeaway of what needs to be examined.
And I like your point about the long haul. That’s definitely something to consider. Taking on short term projects are fine, but the long-term clients are awesome because you make the most impact and really become a part of their business.
Thanks again, Rachel.
Kyle Alm says
I really dislike how people in our industry are running from the phrase “Search Engine Optimization’ because of the tactics of a few individuals. Spamming links and stuffing keywords isn’t SEO. It’s not all about rankings, traffic, or any of that either, it’s about engagement and getting new leads. So whether we are termed, “Content Marketers”, “Growth Hackers”, or “Inbound Marketing Specialists” the main goal is to generate leads.
We all optimize content, for readers and for Google, don’t we all want to put the right foot forward and send the correct signals?
Jessica Lee says
Thanks for your comment, Kyle! I agree, the goals are the same no matter what we call it. But I think “SEO” is becoming a dirty word simply because it’s somewhat dated. The optimization is not just for search engines anymore, and marketers are focused more on the experience, and things that go beyond just the tactical stuff that used to be SEO. So the profession has evolved while the semantics haven’t quite. Thoughts?