When I was young and stupid (unlike now of course), a good friend of mine dared me to go on a date with at least 100 different girls between my 16th and 19th birthdays. It didn’t take too long to realize that there was an ironic phenomenon in dating – playing “hard to get” typically meant you got more attention.
Search engine optimization has become very similar to dating. If you want to get noticed by Google, work on your marketing strategy as though they don’t exist. Better yet, the best SEO strategy after Panda and Penguin is to work as though you’ll never get another website visitor from any search engine, ever again.
What would you do if the internet was exactly like it is today, only without search engines? How would you get your target customers to find you without paying to advertise? These are the types of questions that will spawn a winning SEO strategy that’s completely future proof. These are the questions internet marketers should have been asking from the beginning.
Somewhere along the way, SEOs mutated from marketers to gamers. We forgot the subtle art of luring in our target market through various steps of a sales funnel. Sure, we became experts at optimizing our conversion funnels; but in the process, we completely ignored the rest of the sales funnel as we focused all of our attention on gaming the system at the “zero moment of truth.”
Rather than manipulating ranking signals (such as links and social metrics), we need to persuade potential customers to move beyond brand awareness toward a future purchase. This is best done through something I’ve started calling “content funneling.”
The Art of Content Funneling
The most popular battle cry these days is that content is king. While that is most certainly true, very few SEOs have a method to their marketing madness. For too many, there’s no rhyme or reason to content creation. Countless articles are being flung into the online arena under the assumption that more is always better. While many of these articles are just garbage, the ones that aren’t don’t lead an audience to action.
At the end of the day, all content should provoke some kind of action – even if the action is simply to consume more information. While some brands struggle to move their readers, others are hindered by an over-zealousness to close the sale. Persuasion is a balance. You need to find the sweet spot between being an encyclopedia and being a pushy salesperson. Lead your audience gently and systematically down a path toward a website conversion. Entice them to follow you through a content funnel that mirrors your sales funnel.
Most of the brands I work with are able to use the following content funnel to lure their target audience closer to a purchase decision. They work to inform, advise, and instruct their readers before they attempt to solve their problems and sell them a product or service.
Step 1: Inform
At the very top of your content funnel, your entire objective should be better brand awareness. This is your opportunity to attract new members to your audience without threatening their attention with sales materials.
As you begin the ideation process for creating your informational content, consider the data that validates your brand’s existence. What empirical evidence is there that you can eventually use to support your unique value propositions? Answering this question with hard data and supporting facts will set up the perfect opportunity to eventually address a problem that your product or service solves.
Be careful not to present the problem or it’s solution in your informational content. This step is simply to get people thinking about the world in the right way so they can make a purchase decision in the future. You should also make sure that your brand takes credit for the information. Make content that’s easy to share in a way that leads people back to you from wherever they found the information.
Step 2: Advise
Once your audience sees your data suggesting that there is some underlying problem in an issue they care about, they are ripe to have the problem explicitly laid out in front of them. This is a great time for a brand like yours to offer advice on how the world should change. Successful advice content will help your audience identify that the problem you set up in your information content affects them.
It can be really tough to engage your audience when all you want to do is tell them that they have a problem. This is where we can learn from traditional advertising tactics. You can clearly present a problem to your audience without leaving a bad taste in their mouths through clever advertainments. There are a lot of good examples of advice content toward the beginning of most animated intro videos.
Step 3: Instruct
The natural tendency for people who recognize that they have a problem is to look for a solution. The meteoric rise of DIY proves that many consumers try to solve their problems on their own before they start looking for a product or service that will do the trick. This is where many brands have to take a leap of faith.
The desire for closely guarded trade secrets will get in the way of your SEO efforts if you’re not careful. I’m sure your secret sauce is something special. It should be. By all means, guard the original recipe, but leak some close substitutes.
One of my favorite sit-down hamburger restaurants is Red Robin. Their campfire sauce is awesome. A while back, a friend and I started scouring the web to make it ourselves. We found dozens of recipes, and tried nearly all of them. Some came pretty close, but none were perfect. I’ve spent more money eating at Red Robin since I started trying to counterfeit their sauce than I ever did before I began my culinary escapades.
Doing business online isn’t much different. The more people you can get trying to duplicate your secret sauce, the longer your lines will be for new and returning customers. Don’t fight against the DIY movement. Use it to attract customers who will certainly get tired of trying to duplicate the amazing things your brand is doing.
Step 4: Solve
After your audience has tried to get it right on their own, they’ll realize that they aren’t the experts you are. They’ll start comparing the available options for purchasing a solution rather than doing it themselves. If you’ve done your job up to this point, you’ll already be near the top of their list. Now all you have to do is show your audience why you’re the best.
The most common ways to show off your great value propositions is by comparing your product or service with the competition. Typically it’s best if praise for your brand doesn’t come directly from you. This is where a good post in a relevant publication by a reputable author would come in handy. If that can’t be arranged, you may be able to tastefully publish this content to your own site or blog. Golden Valley Natural did a great job with this for a while with their weekly “Snackdown.”
Don’t try to hide all your flaws in these “Top 10” and “Best ___” posts. If your audience thinks that your product or service is too good to be true, they may just back out at the last second. A conservative amount of honesty about minor flaws may actually help you make the sale.
Step 5: Sell
This is usually the easiest step for many brands because most of the content they currently have on their website is purely promotional. It’s all designed to sell some
Typically, the biggest problem with sales pages are that they don’t get many natural links or social shares unless the product or service is truly amazing. This is why many SEOs are so quick to run out and hire a link building service – they see it as a silver bullet. That may have been true before April 2012, but it’s not anymore. If you want an SEO strategy that will last forever, you’ll need to do a good job sculpting PageRank from your upper-funnel content toward your sales pages.
Putting it All Together
This SEO strategy gets all your marketing efforts working together for your brand. Content at the top of the funnel typically belongs on your blog, and you should create a content schedule to publish new posts regularly.
You should take care to link your content together thoughtfully. I usually like to see links to the next step in the funnel and the final sales page in almost every post. For this reason, it’s usually good to build your content funnel backward (from the bottom up) – there’s no sense trying to send your audience to a page that doesn’t exist yet. That’s a good way to quickly burn bridge.
Promoting upper-funnel content is natural and acceptable on social networks. The better your content is, the more likely you will be to experience “mini-viral” effects. Always keep in mind that the oldest social networks on the internet are forums and blog comments. Just make sure that your comments are useful and relevant to the original thread or post.
If you create great content and integrate your other online efforts and strategies, you can begin seeing some results immediately. Will those results be an immediate increase in organic traffic? Probably not. But you should start seeing your referral traffic and ranking signals increase. The sales you get from referral traffic increases shouldn’t have to foot the bill for ROI. Give it a few months and organic traffic will start carrying its own weight. I typically evaluate the effectiveness of this strategy by looking at referral traffic and ranking signals before I see organic results.
If your content was produced well, published to be shared, and promoted effectively, you should see immediate traffic increases. You’ll have to tweak the timing of your publishing schedule so that each piece of content you create builds on the last.
Keep in mind that the referral traffic you’re generating won’t stick around. It will taper off over time along with new links and social signals.
For content near the bottom of your sales funnel, you should expect to see fewer natural links and social signals. It’s understandable that the closer your content is to making a final sale, the less people will share it.
I like to look closely at ranking signals by funnel step and industry to identify benchmarks for future posts. If you’re monitoring these metrics closely, you can predict future results fairly accurately.
I’ve also noticed that while referral traffic is great, it doesn’t always have the best conversion rates. The real magic of this strategy is that it’s future-proof SEO. If you ignore Google and try to get as much referral traffic as you can, you’ll rank well for the topics and keywords that matter most to your brand.