Despite the constant push the leading digital giants give to paid advertising, organic remains the most influential lead acquisition and engagement channel for the majority of businesses. SEO has been a long-time leader on the organic front. However, the optimized content oversaturation and ever more intricate optimization rules muddled the once straightforward effort-reward equation marketers stuck to for years.
Times are changing.
Neither SEO nor content creation is what it used to be.
Still, that doesn’t mean organic reach is, well, out of reach. Simply, a transition is underfoot.
We had a chance to talk with Rand Fishkin on the first-ever episode of the Ungated Marketing Podcast. If there’s anyone qualified to offer a unique perspective on the matter, it’s Rand.
Having made a name for himself first with SEOmozblog in 2004 (which became the world’s most popular community and content resource for search marketers); then launching Moz, the consulting company; and lastly becoming CEO & Co-Founder of SEOmoz… He most certainly isn’t the person you would have imagined leaving all that behind and becoming the co-founder and CEO of SparkToro, a unique audience research software startup. Even less so would you have imagined him driving SparkToro to success organically without using any SEO whatsoever?
In an insightful conversation with our VP of Marketing, Fernando Amaral, Rand reflects on the “fall” of SEO from its pedestal and makes a compelling case for the future — or, better said, present — of organic reach and lead generation where influential sources take center stage.
The Reward Power of SEO is Waning
Despite the click-bait rumors that the art of content optimization is dead, it’s hard to deny the power of SEO in generating traffic, leads, and, ultimately, customers. It’s still very much a hot topic among marketers. However, as Rand Fishkin points out, it’s the Golden Age of SEO that’s gone.
He reminisces that when he was working on Moz, SEO was “...relatively low competition. [...] You could much more easily rank. And when you did rank, Google was not trying to keep people on Google. They were [...] actively trying to send people to websites, right to the rest of the open web.”
Today, the situation is very different. Every potent keyword across pretty much any sector has 10,000 competitors. Google is doing all it possibly can to keep people on their site by answering their questions right in the search results, without requiring that additional click. On top of that, SEO is much more complicated than it used to be.
“Back in the day, I would just point three anchor text phrases at this page... Boom! I’m number one”, Rand points out.
Indeed, SEO today demands immense effort in terms of content creation as well as application of ever more on-page and technical optimization. Furthermore, the reward for that increased effort takes much, much longer to materialize and hardly ever reaches the “glory” of the early days of SEO.
Sources of Influence
If SEO is turning out to be more work than reward, what are your options to attract people to your site organically?
Well, sometimes, to see the way forward, it’s necessary to look back.
Before Google helped us find answers and solutions, people relied on trusted sources of information, be it newspapers, radio/TV programs, or recommendations from friends. Rand shares a story to demonstrate the power such sources can yield: “Pauline, she's my grandmother. She lived in New Jersey, and she read the New York Times religiously [...]. In particular, she would read the theater reviews. Now, if I went to see a play in New York, or musical or something, and I loved it, I'd come back to Alma, [and tell her] “You need to go to see this play! It was fantastic.” And you know what she'd always say? — “I read about it in the New York Times; they didn't like it.” — She didn't trust her own grandson over the New York, right? She had her source of influence that she trusted and believed. And that was it!”
However, this behavior is not unique to older generations. As Rand points out, today, we behave much the same way. We buy products, visit places and follow the advice of our favorite niche publications, industry experts, Instagrammers, YouTubers, speakers at trusted events and conferences, etc. So, while it might not be New York Times anymore, the reflex to flock to our trusted source is there across all generations.
Essentially, building on the power of influential sources is what made SparkToro explode its organic reach without having to rely on virtually any SEO. Rand explains: “If you remove branded search, you can see that we get almost no search traffic whatsoever. And yet [...] a couple of hundred folks are signing up for a free account on SparkToro every day. And why is that? It’s because in the marketing universe of webinars that people attend and YouTube channels that they watch and blogs that they read and social media accounts that they follow and you know, email newsletters that they subscribe to and podcasts that they listen to [...] SparkToro is talked about in all of those places. And because of that, it spreads through. Not quite what I call word of mouth, but sort of word of influential sources.”
Does Social Media Face the Same Fate as SEO?
The story of Social Media is not so different from SEO.
Once upon a time, earning social media visibility, engagement, and, ultimately, traffic to your website used to be significantly easier. If you devoted yourself only to creating fun/challenging/disruptive copies and eye-catching content and engaging with your audience, you had a fair chance at succeeding.
However, social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., started to squash the organic reach to “gently encourage” brands to use their paid options. Furthermore, like Google, they are adjusting their organic visibility algorithms to favor posts that keep their users on the networks. For instance, it’s no secret LinkedIn algorithm greatly favors “Link-in-Comment” type posts as opposed to those with a link in the post and an obvious “leave LinkedIn” CTA.
Chasing KPIs such as followers and engagement on social might not be THE way to go any longer. In fact, as Rand points out, using email might get you much further: “If you look at the stats from, for example, MailChimp, [...] about average open rates and average click-through rates on their website. [...] Those numbers are still in the 20s and have been for two decades, right? So [if] an average open rate is something like 21-22%, or whatever it is, [and] average click-through rate is like 3.5-4%. Phenomenal! You can't... I think the average engagement rate on a Facebook post for a brand that you follow is 0.09% [...] So, I would rather have one email address of a potential customer than 1000 more Facebook followers.”
So is this it? The end of social media as an organic medium?
Rand argues: “All these things are true, like, yes, Facebook wants to keep people on Facebook, LinkedIn wants to keep people on LinkedIn, Twitter wants to keep people on Twitter, Reddit wants to keep people on Reddit. But it's also the case that in all those places, there are both communities and individuals who talk about marketing tools and software and audience research and, you know, identifying your customers, sources of influence, and all that kind of stuff. And we get to be part of those conversations by participating in them; And by having influential people who know us, like us, trust us — Talk about us there.”
The best part about approaching social media as a “crossroads” for sources, persons, and opinions of influence is that it doesn’t clash with the networks’ strategy of trying to keep people from leaving: “Even if someone says; “Hey, I use SparkToro to do this!” And they Tweet about it. It doesn't have to contain a link. It doesn't have to drive someone away from Twitter, but you're very likely to see that Tweet and then open up a search window and search for SparkToro. And that's how we get a lot of our traffic, a lot of our free users, and then a lot of the people who turn into paying customers.”
Having your brand or product discussed in communities and profiles that people trust and seek out can be more powerful than any advertising.
So, why isn’t everyone doing it?
It’s harder to track.
Can You Track Sources of Influence? Does it Matter?
Tracking behaviors and results is a crucial part of every business. However, outside of paid channels, attribution is not always so easy to follow. Google and social networks alike make it difficult, and quite purposefully so, to track where the conversions are coming from unless you are paying for an ad. Furthermore, the “sources of influence” tactic is so human — flexible, evolving, messy, and relying on the modern version of word-of-mouth — it’s harder to monitor and track than most.
Rand argues that when it comes to selecting influential sources, obsessing over attribution might cost you valuable opportunities: “I could spend a tremendous amount of effort and energy attempting to build an attribution model for all of this stuff. And then I could have some more sophisticated model for maybe prioritizing podcasts or saying no to more of them. But is that really what I want to do?”
Building a network of influential sources is not just about driving conversions, but also about building community and relationships with people from your domain. So, when Rand asks himself: “Would I rather be someone who says YES to almost every opportunity that looks relevant and interesting, and end up having lots of great phone calls with people like yourself, and, you know, driving whatever business it drives, or not?” — His answer is YES as his biggest goal is to help people do better marketing, a goal from which he believes only good things can flow: “So if you and I have a positive conversation, that helps other people do their work better, that helps them conceptualize what they should be working on, I believe that will return to us in some form or another over time, [...] I do not care about being able to track it perfectly. And I don't care if it is, you know, if every third podcast I do, technically, was a waste of that hour because nobody signed up or whatever. That's not what it's about.”
In Rand's playbook, if he comes across the right kind of podcast with the right type of audience, he reaches out, he says yes because there’s nothing to lose. Embracing this approach is one of the most cost-effective and irrevocably organic ways to reach your target audience and build brand awareness that hopefully entices people to give your product a try without Google or Facebook demanding you pay a toll at the gate.
Is Content Distribution More Important than Creation?
In his recent and somewhat controversial article, Rand points out that crucial social and amplification platforms have decreased the value of externally-published content, which led to a decline in the quantity of published material from once very active creators. The trend directly fueled by major players like Google, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter is decreasing the reach and visibility of organic content.
Does this mean you should reorganize your priorities and put more effort into content distribution?
The answer is not in either-or. As the inbound landscape changes and evolves, you need to adjust your perspective. If you keep producing the same type of SEO-driven content, hoping it will break through, you’re unlikely to have a good time. The same goes for going all out on distribution without much forethought.
Instead of pushing for distribution or producing a lot of content, see above that and think, “...here is why people will amplify the content that I create, and I can make much less of it, but focus it more on earning that amplification.”
This approach encourages you to think more strategically about the content you create, be it a product or email lead or a PR content to be distributed either through other people's channels and influential sources or through content of your own.
What Content Should You Produce?
If this is the strategy to follow, what type of content should you focus on? Each year, endless lists of content trends try to help you answer those questions. The spotlight has been on blog articles, infographics, interactive content types like quizzes, instant stories, podcasts, live streamings, videos…
Even Rand makes a case for video format as he claims: “Human beings are wired to look at human faces, right? And respond well to them. So, I think, there's definitely value there, I would say, if you've followed me on Twitter or LinkedIn, you've probably seen that I've done a bunch of product videos where I've got [...] my face on 1/3 of the screen, and then SparkToro on 2/3 of the screen. [...] Those videos get between 10.000 views each and do drive a significant amount of product education and new people trying the product out. So that can be pretty darn effective.”
Video indeed boasts a good advantage even with the new social media rules and restrictions. All the key players among social networks have a native video and are happy to show it on their platform — since it doesn’t ask the users to leave them behind. So, if you can produce quality videos, you can do quite well.
Is video what you should focus on, then?
That’s not the message Rand wants to leave behind. Ultimately, content trends don't matter. He believes that when you're trying to conceptualize which content formats and styles you should do for your company, you shouldn’t do exactly what he did: “Instead, pick something that's at the intersection of [what] you are uniquely good at. Right? So, if you are terrible on camera, maybe don't do it, don't do live video! If you are phenomenal at illustrations, maybe [focus on] visual content.”
The message is loud and clear. Play on your strengths! Use what you already know and feel comfortable with to connect and persuade people. Content that comes from a natural place is, after all, the most convincing.
Influence Map: How to Pick the Right Amplifiers?
Building brand awareness and generating leads through sources of influence requires investigation into what these sources of influence are. While Rand mentioned he didn’t discriminate among influential sources based on the size of their reach and impact, he always makes sure their audience is right for SparkToro.
That’s why he believes that “every marketer, and every business owner, and executive team should have [...] an influence map.”
An influence map is, essentially, a theoretical concept mapping:
- How people learn about the problem they solve with your product;
- How they learn about brands and tools;
- How they educate themselves on the topic.
Rand elaborates: “... A lot of people discover indie video games through YouTube channels that they pay attention to. And a bunch of them find those independent video games through Reddit and the subreddit that they subscribe to, and a bunch of them find it through review sites, and a bunch of them find it through Twitch [...] Fantastic! What's wonderful about that is it tells you these are the channels and sources and opportunities that exist for my field. And I can, generally speaking, rule out LinkedIn [...] and Google search. [...] People don't go to Google search and say: ‘Oh, give me, show me all the new indie video games that are in the action genre.’”
Besides picking relevant sources, you should likewise consider the viability of the channel a particular source is using. Even if the source of influence is right, your attempt might backfire if the channel isn't.
To explain the importance of the channel alongside building an influence map, Rand shares a story of launching a source-of-influence campaign on TikTok: “We had a video that was viewed several hundred thousand times that was essentially just using SparkToro. [...] It was from a TikTok influencer in the marketing universe. And we looked, and we saw that, yes, tons of people came to SparkToro, signed up, and the quality of those, [...] leads or customers [was] just extremely low. They came once. They were very complaint-heavy. Clearly, most of them didn't really know how to use the product, or it wasn't clear what projects they were using them for. We got a lot of weird messages, like angry-ranty-swearing messages sent to our support [... and] a lot of the email address signup fields were like ‘screw-you-SparkToro@gmail.’”
With that experience, the SparkToro team realized the TikTok audience was simply not a suitable match. They were not forcing the leads to sign up and yet were receiving a significant backlash. Instead, channels like LinkedIn and Twitter proved to be much more effective in reaching the right kind of audience. This is why, when it comes to the sources of influence marketing, numbers are not always the best indicator of success. A huge number of impressions, engagements, and even conversions don’t always communicate the quality of a given attempt. Hence, any influential map you create needs to be cross-referenced against the channels your audience favors.
Identify those sources and channels and start asking yourself, “How do I get on that newsletter?” “How do I get to speak at that conference?” “What do I need to do to appear on that podcast?”
Answering these questions will also help you make more informed and tactical choices for your content creation strategy.
Do You Need a Personal Brand?
Using influential sources to drive your inbound marketing strategy requires quite a bit of outreach and trying to wiggle your foot in the door. Having a recognizable personal brand can open doors that might have otherwise stayed closed.
Rand points out that while having a personal brand can have its advantages, there’re drawbacks to it as well. For example, having built his personal brand with Moz, the company took a hit when he decided to leave. On a personal level, he is still being asked about SEO, even though it’s been years since he was actively involved in it.
So, his advice when it comes to building a personal brand?
“If it's a skill and talent that you've already got a resource that you've already got internally fantastic! Go for it. But if not, I would not stress about building it if you don't have it. Millions of brands build very successful marketing engines without a person you know, a single human being that you identify with that brand.”
And so it is. While SEO isn't dead, as many like to pronounce, its Golden Age is gone. What once was a sure way to quick success is now an arduous journey not always worth the effort. Instead, the spotlight is on thinking about your content strategically and amplifying its reach through a well-researched influence map.