Rand Fishkin knows a thing or two about online marketing. He is famed for his Whiteboard Friday video series, was the co-founder of marketing analytics software company Moz, was named among the 30 Best Young Tech Entrepreneurs Under 30 in 2009 by Business Week and has authored two books on inbound marketing and the world of start-ups, and recently set up SparkToro, a tool that helps marketers discover the kind of content their audience is into. So, when he says it’s the end of an era on the web for SMEs, it’s worth taking note.
This, at least, seemed to be the crux of his message at Inbound Marketing France, a conference attended by one of our marketing-automation clients, Plezi, earlier this year.
The issue stems from the fact that the big four tech companies (GAFA: Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) have such a stranglehold on online advertising. Google alone owns 90 per cent of online search, and between them they take 65 per cent of online ad revenue.
That makes it almost impossible for businesses to succeed without fully depending on these firms, with any sudden change in their search or feed algorithms able to shrink traffic volumes overnight.
The result is that the ROI on advertising spend is trending towards zero, not only for SMEs but also for start-ups with deep pockets. That’s because the main objective of these start-ups is often to achieve growth – at the expense of profitability.
Let’s imagine, for example, you want to launch a CRM tool. To be in with a chance of appearing at the top of page one on Google for the keyword “CRM software”, you’ll have to spend between £15 and £50. Based on a conversion rate of 2.41% (the average for B2B according to Wordstream), before you convert any leads into paying customers, you’ll need to fork out approximately £600 to £2000. And this doesn’t include staff costs.
Now while this type of client acquisition may spur growth, these unhealthy bidding competitions are unlikely to generate profitable growth and put up barriers to SMEs.
Rand suggests that model will eventually harm everyone in the long term, even these tech giants.
So, what should SMEs do if they want to succeed online in 2020? Rand spoke to our client and gave his top ten tips for SMEs:
1. Find your niche
When faced with increasingly fierce competition and big-tech monopolies, “If you want to stand out as a small business, you have to be ready to do the things that large companies cannot or do not want to do, meaning lots of creativity and innovation around the product and marketing.”
Before considering channels and SEO tactics, it is essential that you have a product that differentiates you from the competition. And to do this, there’s nothing better than specialisation, which gives you a unique perspective in your market and, subsequently, your marketing. Rand gave the example, “instead of saying that you’re going to compete with Gmail and become an email provider, you say “we know that PR specialists in Europe have a very specific process that they use to generate their emails, and we want to be able to offer them a better inbox experience. It’s a very limited market, but you can serve it better than anyone else.” Find that differentiating factor so you no longer have any direct competition.
2. Plan for the long term
According to Rand, only two to three out of ten businesses that want to embark on content creation will get a good return on investment. If a business wants to do well in content and SEO, they have to take a proactive, long-term approach. Rather like a savings account, if you want a good ROI, you need to consistently feed good quality content to your audience to keep them engaged. And having a structured plan in place will help you make the most of every opportunity that presents itself. Otherwise there are plenty of other strategies you could use to bring in business, from prospecting to publicity.
3. Spin the flywheel, then find growth hacks
Growth hacking is on trend, and it’s a tactic that you should take advantage of. But Rand emphasised the importance of first creating a positive spin for your content marketing flywheel. Once you find traction in a virtuous circle of content-creation, link-generation and increasing traffic, you can then get creative and use growth hacks to scale this up.
4. Analyse and use your personas
Creating buyer personas is a critical step. It’s not just about studying your target market in fine detail, but about analysing what kind of content they consume and the channels they use. The purpose is to discover a range of tools to reach your market. In fact, Rand believes in personas so much that he created SparkToro a “search engine for audience intelligence”. Essentially, it’s a tool that helps you analyse personas: what they watch, what they listen to, what they read, who they follow and where they go.
5. Centralise your content
On whichever platform you publish your content, be it Facebook, Medium, LinkedIn or any other, no one is immune to strategic changes that may impact your business. Medium may start charging a premium and LinkedIn may simply reduce the visibility of your articles, however, no one can remove articles from or impose new rules on your own your website. These are just platforms, so centralise your content on your own website so it never gets lost.
6. Syndicate your content
While you centralise your content, it is still a shrewd move to syndicate content on these larger platforms, but you need to make sure you re-work it so you don’t get punished for having duplicate content. The idea is to give readers on LinkedIn, Facebook, Medium etc. a taster –just the intro and a couple of paragraphs—and to send them to your website with a read-more link at the end of the article. It’s also best not to post every article you write on these platforms. Choose one or two a month that have the potential to generate lots of shares and traffic.
7. Differentiate your channels
90% of people use Google. So, should you put all your eggs in the Google basket? By no means. Targeting Bing users, for example, could pay dividends, especially if your competitors aren’t doing so. For Rand, his preferred channel is email and contact-database management, generally preferring ten good email contacts in his own database to 1,000 new followers on Twitter, which belong to Twitter.
8. Less is more on Social Media
With figures from his own account to support it, Rand demonstrated that publishing content with few interactions will penalise future publications when posted. This is because algorithms favour good quality content that triggers positive spirals. This goes against the advice of some, like Hubspot, who may push you to publish more content to increase visibility. However, it’s better to share a message on your employees’ profiles rather than publish the same message ten times on your corporate account. The less-is-more theory also works well for SEO when it comes to combatting “content shock”.
9. Use your content for amplification
While you need to be ultra-specific in your content and marketing strategy, Rand recommends creating content that appeals to both your direct audience and influencers. You may need to develop subjects that have a tenuous relationship with your products or services, but which would allow you to expand your audience to generate more traffic and inbound links. Here at Keytext, for example, we write content for freelance translators, even though they’re unlikely to buy anything from us. Firstly, it helps us attract talented translators. Secondly, it helps us to rank well for translation-related search terms and, thirdly, we want to help professional translators be successful, just because.
10. Combine SEO and SEA
According to Rand, advertising only works well when you already know a brand, making expensive PPC and buy-this-product-now-type advertising pointless if an audience that hasn’t already engaged with you. That’s why it’s important to create interesting content, without trying to sell. With good quality content, you can start to attract people to your website, get their contact details and encourage them to subscribe to your social media channels. Then, and only then, does product advertising really start to work for your audience. Use SEO upstream of the marketing funnel, then SEA and marketing automation to accelerate the buying process.