A False Economy

This week, I was speaking to the manager of one of my local employment agencies.  I asked her why so many local firms misunderstood the definition of marketing and combined that strategy role with other activities.

For example, I keep seeing job listings that describe the following:

Wanted Sales/Marketing Manager/Assistant

Joe Bloggs Ltd seeks an experienced candidate for the above post.  The successful candidate will:

  • Create and manage our marketing strategy
  • Manage our sales team
  • Maintain the company’s website
  • Organise and contribute to firm’s social media accounts
  • Optimise the firms internet presence
  • Design and publish company sales brochure and staff magazine
  • Write professional copy
  • General administration and office duties
  • Manage firm’s marketing budget.

We are looking for a candidate with the following skill set:

  • 2 years experience in an appropriate marketing role
  • A marketing/sales qualification (degree & CIM diploma)
  • Copywriting skills including two year’s portfolio of published material
  • Graphic design skills and experience with Adobe Creative suite
  • Experience of Search Engine optimisation and web analytics software (including Google Analytics)
  • Experienced photographer
  • Web design qualifications and experience of creating professional websites
  • Experience of managing sales representatives and setting KPIs

And here is the kicker:

Job is part-time (25 hours) and offers a salary of £20,000 per annum (pro rata).

Yes, the above details are fictional but they are typical of the types of advertisement I see in my local area.  It seems that firms are expecting candidates to be an excellent IT professional, a marketing strategist, a graphic designer and a professional copywriter simultaneously.  They then expect that varied role, a job at the centre of the firms commercial strategy, to be undertaken on part-time hours and for a salary more usually associated with a middle-ranking administrator.

I cannot see where you would find a candidate to meet all the above qualification and experience requirements.

The manager of the employment agency agreed.  A qualified copywriter or graphic designer has a completely different skill set to that of a professional marketing strategist and to ask one individual to carry out all of the above activities simultaneously is a huge task.  In fact, it is almost impossible to find a single candidate which will meet all of the above essential requirements.  It is likely that the successful candidate will be a jack of all trades and master of none.  In the experience of the employment agency it was common to find that local employers were massively undervaluing the role of marketing in their business.

The employment agency manager also stated that local firms were still struggling after the long economic downturn and as a result were combining roles to save money.

It is noticeable that the UK, following the Brexit referendum, has the slowest growth of the G20 nations, a significantly devalued currency, the highest inflation rate in Europe and the lowest productivity.  Those firms who have benefitted from increased exports as a result of the lower pound have not reinvested the money in their business.  Instead they have banked the money to build a war chest for the expected chaos of a no deal Brexit outcome.  For example, until recently, raw material factory gate inflation has been running at close to 18%.

However, I feel that companies looking to save money by combining several technical and professional roles into one job are in danger of creating false economies.  It’s the old chestnut of ‘if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”.

I have just started to read a book entitled Inbound Marketing and SEO: Insights from the Moz Blog.

The book contains entries from a blog created by the expert in Search Engine Optimisation, Rand Fishkin.

In the first chapter of the book, Fishkin discusses the difference between Black Hat and White Hat SEO.

The terms ‘white hat’ and ‘black hat’ come from old B movie westerns where the heroes tended to wear white Stetsons and the villains black Stetsons.

Fishkin points out the differences between professional search engine optimisation professionals,  inbound marketers and social media managers.  He is absolutely clear that inbound marketing is not just a new name for search engine optimisation and that it is a strategy process.  He also clearly states that the skill set of a social medial management professional is significantly different to that of someone expert in maximising your Page ranking.

Think of it like this.  Inbound marketing is your strategy level.  SEO is one of the promotional channels you intend to pursue. Social media management is one tactic employed to meet your inbound marketing strategic goals by raising your digital ‘share of voice’.

Personally, I feel social media is less about lead generation and raising sales revenue and is best used to develop customer retention, move clients up the ladder from customer  to advocate and to increase word of mouth.

If you persist in under valuing the role of an SEO professional in your organisation; you may end up relying on Black Hat SEO tactics such as the use of spam, the abuse of keyword variants, Advertising blocks dominating web pages and keyword stuffed titles.

With the latter of these dubious tactics, one of the worst culprits is the Mail online where article headlines are often as long as the article itself.

Such Black Hat tactics can devalue your brand and lead to significant reputation damage.  You may also end up breaching data protection and privacy laws.  remember the new General Data Protection Regulations come into force next year.  They significantly increase individual members of the public’s rights as to what is done with their data and the level of fines included in the new regulations could cripple some businesses.

One of the problems with job advertisements like the one I have created above is that they assume that someone with qualifications in one of the above sectors will have equivalent skills in the associated roles.  I am a marketing strategist.  I help firms develop strategies to best fit their organisational vision and mission; but I know very little about the technical aspects of running and creating websites.  I know even less about, and do not have the artistic skill to carry out the duties of a graphic designer.

By undervaluing and misunderstanding the roles of marketing professionals in your business, you are not maximising your market position and this could lead to lower lead conversion rates, lower turnover, lower productivity and lower growth.  By not investing properly in the professional skills of professional SEOs, marketing strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and web designers; each a professional role in their own right; you are not maximising your earning potential.

Think before jumping on the social media bandwagon

Last Thursday, I attended the regular small business networking meeting arranged by my local branch of the Federation of Small Businesses.  By the end of that meeting, I was fuming.  The focus of my anger, that evening’s talk entitled Five Things You Must Do Now on Social Media.

I was angry at the length of the talk; at these events contributors are supposed to give presentation of around 20 minutes, the speaker talked for over an hour.  However, I was even angrier at the content of the presentation.

The speaker, like me, was a member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.  Yet in her talk on the latest hot topics in social media marketing there was not a single mention of strategy, of objectives, of monitoring activity or of return on investment.  There was also no mention of the potential hazards of using social media as a marketing communications channel.

I therefore dug out my textbooks and looked at what experts in digital marketing had to say on the subject of social media.  I referred to Dave Chaffey’s book Digital Marketing (Dave also runs the excellent Smart Insights website) and the SOSTAC method advocated by PR Smith.  These two individuals are probably the most renowned academics working in the field of digital marketing.

PR Smith uses the acronym SOSTAC to define the process of creating a digital marketing plan.  In fact, it is such a useful system of planning development, it can be used across marketing planning.  It stands for Situation, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, Action, Control.

Social Media is a single communications channel.  It is a tactic not a strategy.  It seems that some operating in the field of social media marketing have forgotten this and treat their speciality as an overarching marketing strategy.  It isn’t and it should not be treated as such.  By all means use social media marketing in your business but that activity should be the result of a careful analysis of your businesses market position and the attributes of your target audience.  So,if I was promoting a fashion brand to teenagers, social media would be a priority communications channel and I would likely want to invest heavily in it.  If I was promoting stair lifts to pensioners, I would prioritise more traditional forms of marketing communication.  It seems some marketers operating in the field of social media have developed a myopic view of communications which may be of little use to many small businesses.

Then there was the title of the talk, “Things you MUST do”.  Sorry, but that is plain wrong.  It infers that the activities MUST be carried out by all businesses.  Surely a better approach is to carry out those activities which best fit your business model, your client base and your available resources.

The speaker had previously worked for a major motor car manufacturer and had now set up their own social media consultancy.  The talk was to small businesses most of whom were either one-man-bands or had fewer than five employees.  There seemed to be little recognition from the speaker as to the resources available to the speaker’s former employer than to the attending audience.

I will quickly list the five things the speaker highlighted:

  1. Using Live Video
  2. Becoming a LinkedIn all-star
  3. Asking for emails
  4. Spending some money as organic reach was dying on social media sites
  5. Getting creative.

The idea that small businesses would be able to produce suitable Live Video seemed a stretch.  Having organised press conferences and media events, I can attest to how difficult it can be to produce successful content on a recorded basis, let alone live.  Sometimes the most confident CEO can turn into a blathering idiot the moment a camera is thrust in their face or a microphone pushed under their nose.  If you are planning such an event, it is always best to have someone with sufficient media training to run the event and to prompt nervous participants.  In my old career, I worked with the likes of Lynn Faulds Wood, John Stapleton and Carol Smylie.  These are broadcast journalists and presenters who could expertly direct those not used to such exposure through an interview.  This is an important skill which many small business people will not have.

The live video idea was mentioned for things like product demonstrations and launches.  It is always worth remembering Murphy’s Law; if anything can go wrong, it will.  I have seen hilarious examples of content from product demonstrations that have gone horribly wrong.  At least those will be remembered.  What is far worse are dull, boring demonstrations which do not stick in the mind.

Live video content is not as easy as it appears, particularly if you are doing an activity such as product demonstration.  Channels such as QVC tend to use employed product demonstrators to give a professional gloss to product launches and ‘how to guides’.

Dee et Al. (2007) argued that social media was increasingly important in influencing consumer perceptions about brands.  They argued that there was a big difference in what was appropriate content depending on factors such as age demographics, gender and the type of product.  They found very few product types which had popularity in all market segments e.g. movies, cars and restaurants.  In short, you need to carefully analyse your target customer segments and design appropriate content.

Microsoft, who part own Facebook, increasingly expect businesses using that platform to pay for the promotion of commercial content.  They are also adamant that consumers must be able to interact with the brand content.  They advise:

  1.  You must understand your customers motivations for using social media.  That content must match the topics they already discuss and match the life stage of those networking.
  2. You need to express yourself as a brand.  A logo and a brand name are not enough.  You have to develop a brand personality which includes a side of the brand not normally seen.
  3. You must understand the consumers motivations for the use of social media and mirror motivations.
  4. You need to create and maintain good conversations.  Those discussions must resonate with the audience and once started a conversation must be followed through. I follow a number of small business networking groups on twitter.  the bad ones are where people end up tweeting about their dogs, the weather or their holidays AND DON’T STICK TO THE SUBJECT OF THEIR BUSINESS.
  5. You have to empower participants.  Let those who network with you express themselves through your brand.  This could be through the use of apps or widgets
  6. You need to identify and nurture online brand advocates and use reputation management tools.
  7. You have to follow the golden rules of Social media
    1. Behave like a social networker
    2. Be creative
    3. Be honest
    4. Be individual
    5. Be conscious of your audience
    6. Update regularly

One firm which is at the forefront of the use of social media for marketing is Ugg, the sheepskin boot manufacturer.  They identify brand fans and give them opportunities to work for Ugg.  They use celebrities as brand advocates and they pay a number of bloggers and vloggers to develop a brand community.  These bloggers don’t only write about Ugg products but they discuss wider ‘youth’ issues such as music and wider fashion trends.

Ugg are very careful that the brand advocates match their brand image.  They were furious when Oprah Winfrey promoted their boots on her television channel as she was outside their young fashion-conscious demographic.

In Digital Marketing, Dave Chaffey discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using social media to develop viral marketing campaigns.

He argues that social media, used correctly, can be a relatively inexpensive viral agent to speak to a large audience and that it can be a good tool for developing customer referral through electronic word of mouth.  However, he warns that for that activity to be truly productive you already need to have the ear of major market influencers.  This can be evidenced in Ugg’s use of celebrities and paid bloggers.

Chaffey also argue that social media can be a high risk marketing communications strategy.  It requires significant initial investment to develop the ‘viral agent’ and to seed the communications programme.

He also warns that many users of social media see the use of portals such as Twitter for commercial purposes as a misappropriation.  People use social media to socialise and during such times do not want to be pestered by brands.

It is often difficult to develop appropriate content for social media channels.  It has to engage the audience and encourage sharing.

Then there is the need to seed the viral activity through the use of key influencers,  This can backfire.  For example, several sports personalities have received criticism when they have promoted products through social media without mentioning that they are being paid to do so.

If a piece of social media goes viral, it can break one of two ways.  It can generate a positive reaction or it can be negative.  It is extremely difficult to judge which of these two paths a viral campaign will follow.  There may well be a need for ongoing and vigilant reputation management.

In conclusion, on its own, social media may not be a sufficient strategy for small businesses.  You need to back it up with more traditional marketing communications activities.  You need to look at your customer engagement ladder.  For many businesses, social media should be focussed on the retention of existing customers than on new customer acquisition.  At best, it is a route to turn existing regular customers into brand advocates.

Social media and other online activities only work well when they are part of a wider marketing communications mix AND you have the time and resources to commit to the social media channel.  You need to decide whether social media is going to be a continuous activity or whether it is going to be part of individual campaigns.  If continuous significant ongoing investment is required.  You also need to balance investment between individual online tools and monitor the return that the investment brings in.  There is no point in having a hugely successful piece of online content if nobody buys your product.

I believe many smaller businesses see social media as a quick and easy fix to their promotional activities.  It isn’t.  It is a tactic which requires careful consideration of viral content and you need to attract key social media influencers.  If those things are not achieved, intensive investment in social media can be a huge waste of time, money and effort.

The cult of SEO

Over the last year I have surprised by the number of businesses and consultants offering search engine optimisation and digital marketing management.  Many of these consultants appear to be presenting SEO as a magic bullet; a single step to digital marketing success and many appear to be using extremely out of date tactics to try to place a business website at the top of a search engine results page

Having done some research into the backgrounds of some of the consultants offering these services it also concerns me that many have no formal marketing qualifications.

The process of search engine optimisation is a structured tactical approach to increase the position of a company or its products in search engine natural or organic results listings when selected keywords or phrases are used.  it is the achievement of a high Page ranking (a term used by Google to assess websites out of 10 for their compatibility with their search engine and which is named after Larry Page, one of the founders of Google)

Search engines work using bots (called crawlers) which search the web looking for particular criteria on websites.  These bots use complex algorithms such as Google Pigeon and Google Panda to identify appropriate keywords and content.

In the early days of the internet, crawlers used to search, almost exclusively for meta data.  That is the programming text which sits behind images text and other website content.  This led to an unscrupulous tactic; which I suspect some SEO consultants still use; where the meta data would be filled with regularly repeated keywords.  It was the equivalent of listing your business as AAAAAAAAAAAAA11111111111 plumbers in the yellow pages directory so as to be the first entry read by consumers.

The big search engine firms recognised that this practice was an issue and they changed their algorithms to ignore the use of repeated meta data content.  Today, these algorithms look for geographic data, content, regular site updates, site links, use of social media as well as the use of keywords.  Simply stuffing meta data with repetitive phrases is no an appropriate tactic for SEO and it is unlikely to work.

Another factor is the increasing use of paid advertising on search engines which now tends to be listed above search engine listings.

One concern I have is that many of these consultants, and others who offer to manage a firms social media accounts, do not do so in a consistent way which recognises the wider strategic intention of a company’s internet site.

The digital marketing guru, PR Smith, who developed the SOSTAC digital marketing programme defines this strategic process using the mnemonic TOPPP SITE:

  • Target Markets – which groups of consumers are you trying to reach?  If you are selling fashion to the under-30s, it is imperative that you have an active and high-profile internet and social media presence.  For example Ugg, the sheepskin boot manufacture employs a group of high profile bloggers to create a virtual brand community, where wider youth culture is discussed, not just Ugg products.  If you are selling gardening services to the elderly, traditional promotional media such as direct mail or print media advertising may be a more appropriate promotional channel.  This does not mean that you do not need an internet presence but that traditional media should be used to signpost potential consumers to your site.
  • Objectives – You have to think strategically about why you want to be on the web.  Is your presence to attract new customers or to retain your existing client base?  Are you engaging in Electronic Word of Mouth?
  • Processes – What processes are going to be part of the website?  Is it going to be a retail site?  Is it primarily to be used for promotion or are you going to incorporate electronic customer services?
  • Partnerships – Search engine algorithms look for site links and links to social media sites.  Therefore you should think strategically about what sites you are linking to.  Are you linking to other companies in your sector, are you linking to professional associations or sites where there is improved synergy?
  • Sequence – What is the sequence of your digital marketing strategy? Do you want to develop credibility on the internet before you raise your visibility?  The mnemonic RACE identifies the sequence stages of digital marketing – Reach consumers, Act to get consumers to initiate dialogue, Convert that engagement into sales, Engage post-sale with consumers to get them to repurchase.
  • Integration – Do you want to integrate consumer data, some of which may be online whilst the rest is in traditional non-electronic form.  Do you want to link your social media activity to your CRM database? Do you want to do this with both inbound and outbound activity and campaigns?
  • Tactical tools – Search engine optimisation is but one tool in strategic digital marketing; it is not the only tool.  Do you want to use pay-per-click or pay per view advertising? Do you want to engage in email marketing or do you want to engage in digital public relations or content marketing?
  • Engagement – The customer engagement ladder is a well-respected marketing theory.  It states that consumers move through various stages of engagement with an organisation.  They begin as prospects (who are aware of an organisation but who have not contracted with that organisation) and at the top of the ladder they are brand advocates who use word of mouth to get others to use a particular company.  Ugg refer to their brand advocates as ‘brand fans’ and some get the opportunity to work for Ugg.  Obviously, depending on the position a consumer is on the customer engagement ladder, website content may need to be adapted.  This may involve the creation of secure site access and password protected content for your most valuable and trusted consumers.

There is far more to digital marketing than Search Engine Optimisation.  It is just one strategic tool amongst many in the digital marketing toolbox.  Before deciding whether SEO consultancies are an appropriate resource for your business, you need a comprehensive digital marketing strategy which is consistent with you other marketing activities.  If you are going to involve a third-party consultant please ensure that they have appropriate digital marketing qualifications and that they are a member of a professional body such as the Chartered Institute of Marketing.