SEO 2015: Will This be the Year of the Story Brand?

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Certain people always seem to know what’s going on in digital marketing. They are able to predict the “Hot Topic” months in advance.

For as many years as I’ve been in this business, I have been flabbergasted by the knowledge of others, and how they give that knowledge away, seemingly for free. Of course, they monetize their voice. We all try to do that for ourselves or for our clients.

But, as I was writing this article, I was lucky enough to get insight, yet again, from industry leaders I don’t really know because of other people willing to help me.

Without getting into specifics about “hyper-local” and “geo-social” (hot new buzzwords for 2015), my research and discussions centered on common themes around the Story Brand:

  • Create a story around your brand, and stay consistent with that
  • Develop a brand that demonstrates transparency, authenticity, emotions, and facets of that story
  • Leverage content generation and syndication, link building, social media, and publisher influence to promote your story

Recently, a friend of mine told me: “Publishers are going to continue to outrank businesses more and more in 2015. Look at Houzz.com… Where did they come from?!?! I keep telling clients to ‘become a publisher.’ Why? Because they rank, and they rank because they aren’t trying to sell a product. They are telling stories.”

In other words, if people hear about you, and they like what you do when they get there, they’ll convert. You don’t need to sell them on a product. You need to sell them on you.

And, so, as 2015 begins, I hope this article will provide you with the best resource of all – knowledge. Without further ado, here is my short list of five “Thought Leaders” and what they think about the year of the Story Brand.

1. Rand Fishkin of Moz.com

Rand Fishkin has taken SEO blogging to a whole different level. Creator of Domain Authority and a sharer of knowledge, he places help, vision, and voice above all. Not one to shy away from being wrong as well, when Fishkin is at the top of his game, he can predict changes in the industry months ahead of time.

This past March, during the keynote speech for SMX West, Fishkin declared that “The long-awaited dominance and bias of search results toward brands is here.” This came as a shock to many. Companies like Google couldn’t really be favoring bigger brands in their search results, could they? If they were, the little guys just starting up really didn’t have a chance to compete for major keywords.

And, that is the point. Instead of focusing on trying to rank ahead of the larger companies in your area, Fishkin says you should be focused on improving your company and your website. If you build the brand, you won’t have to worry as much about the best SEO techniques.

Up until now, companies always tried to figure out what Google’s algorithm was, so they could get their websites to rank higher. These gains were short-lived, however, because inevitably Google would catch on and change the algorithm.

In one interview, Fishkin stated: “I think there’s a strong internal belief at Google that sites engaging in proactive SEO shouldn’t have an advantage over those that simply provide great content and great products.”

And, in terms of predictive shifts in digital marketing, Fishkin said this back in 2012:

If I name a successful brand – McDonalds, Ford, Guinness, Starbucks, Google, Boeing, Coca-Cola, Apple – chances are good that all of their loyal fans, most of their occasional consumers, and even a good number of non-customers can recite a version of that brand’s narrative (how they began, what they stand for, maybe even a founder’s name or a specific anecdote). There’s an odd correlation with brand narratives and successful brands.

As the bigger brands begin to invest more resources in SEO, it will become even harder for the little guys to compete in search rankings. The only way they stand a chance is if they work toward building their brand, so they can come to be seen as an industry leader, and not just another company among the many.

2. Mark Jackson of Vizion Interactive

Mark Jackson has been a regular contributor at SearchEngineWatch for nearly 7 years now and has been in search and/or marketing for well over a decade. He’s been at big brands, including AOL in the early days, and he understands “brand messaging” better than most.

I got the chance to connect with him here recently, and this is what he had to say:

“While many will talk about the importance of the more recent ‘P Updates’ (Panda, Penguin, and Pigeon), I am more inclined to fall back on an update of yore – Google’s Vince Update.

“Known as the ‘brand’ update, I believe that this set the stage for what was to follow of the now ubiquitous P Updates. Google believes that ‘Brands are the solution, not the problem’ in delivering a more positive set of organic results for its users. (See this AdvertisingAge article from 2008.) Since that time, Google has made tremendous strides in ridding its results of spam. It has also shaped what SEO is today.

“You must create a brand to be relevant to Google.

“How do you create a brand? As I referenced in my Search Engine Watch post in 2012, reach and frequency are key. So many talk about ‘content marketing’ being vital to organic search today (and it is), but what may be lost is the importance of amplifying your message so that it reaches your intended audience.

Influencer outreach / PR efforts are one thing, but other forms of promotion are also vital to the effort. Sometimes your organic search endeavors may require a paid component (and, no, I’m not talking about buying links). I’m talking about advertising your message to your audiences, so that you can gain share-of-voice and gain the reach and frequency to have your content efforts ‘mean something’ (to Google, and to your target audience).

“The more folks who see your message and are exposed to your brand, the better chance your content will be shared and, yes, linked to.”

3. Troy Ireland of Digital Current

When I contacted Troy Ireland, Managing Partner at Digital Current, he responded to my question with excellent insight into how brands need to focus on showing their human side to consumers in order to be successful in 2015 and beyond. I listen closely to what Ireland has to say since he is one of the few marketers I know who has had success with thousands of SEO clients over the past thirteen years. This is his response:

“It may sound like a stretch, and biologists would argue otherwise, but any company adept at turning everyday customers into engaged communities knows this: brands are human.

“Not convinced? Stay with me. Humans dream up brands and bring them to life. Other humans – living, breathing consumers – keep them alive by doing business with them. We’re social beings, after all. And, while that has always been true, in my experience, success in the digital marketplace increasingly depends on how authentically a brand is able to convey its humanity to consumers.

“How? At a minimum it requires a willingness to express emotion, a clear sense of purpose, and, perhaps above all else, meaningful communication. With so many communication channels available, it’s imperative that a brand’s digital, social media, and content marketing efforts alike share a voice.

“In today’s current landscape, search engine optimization experts are beginning to realize the value of having a voice as they attract increasingly humanized Google search results. We see this clearly in the transition that SEO experts are making from concentrating on search rankings for keywords to focusing on answering audience questions.

“And, in fact, the key to Google search has always been its humanity. We’re so used to thinking of the Google algorithm as our robotic librarian that we often forget that humans designed this storied algorithm to mimic human intelligence and to anticipate human needs, desires, and thought patterns. What Google is searching for, in other words, is humanity.

“This is important to keep in mind across all digital marketing, not just search. For most brands, the key to staying competitive isn’t technology, but applying time-tested marketing methods to new media, in new ways. Intrigue, humor, empathy, or beauty conveyed through evocative images, and dramatic storytelling, colorful video, a well-told narrative, or compelling social media engagement, can resonate deeply in ways a search engine text box alone just can’t.

“Build deep relationships with your audience. They will open up and voice their questions. Knowing what they need for content, aligning the intent behind those needs to your sales funnel, and guiding them properly through the process will lead to a stronger ROI. Once you have your content marketing plan in place, deploy your SEO, link building, social promotion, and influencer outreach strategies to get your story in front of your audience.

“Companies that lose sight of the fact that brands are human (and that customers need to connect with them on an emotional level) do so at their own peril.”

4. Kevin Spacey of Trigger Street

Yes, you read that right. Our fourth thought leader is the Academy Award winning actor, Kevin Spacey. You may think he is an odd choice to discuss online marketing, but you’d be wrong. In fact, Spacey recently gave the keynote speech at Content Marketing World 2014, an event sponsored by the Content Marketing Institute.

Spacey didn’t talk about his wealth of knowledge on SEO or his marketing strategies, because he doesn’t have any. Instead, he talked about what he knows best – telling a story. And, not just any story, but YOUR story.

During his speech, he said: “The story is everything, which means it is our job to tell better stories.” He went on to say that “Building a story comes down to three things: conflict, authenticity, and audience.”

Conflict, according to Spacey, is what builds engagement with a story. People like to hear a story in which the characters take risks. In the advertising world, you can create conflict by “going against the settled order of things.”

Authenticity is the next important ingredient. When people feel they are being deceived, or that you are not being true to them, they are turned off. Stay true to who you are and what your brand stands for. Don’t try to do what another company is doing simply because it is working for them. Be authentic with your audience, and they will respond to you.

Audience may be the hardest part of all. In order to gather an audience, you need to do something that is unique and that other people want to share. This is becoming harder and harder to do as more companies attempt the same, but if you can find an idea that works, you will be rewarded.

What was the main point of Spacey’s speech? Simply this: If you want to reach a wider audience, you have to apply a personal touch. Audiences want a story, something they can connect to. If you can make your audience feel a part of the story, you will be able to engage with them like never before.

5. Pam Didner of GlobalContent.Marketing

Pam Didner is a voice I had not heard of before, but recently found out about from Lee Odden’s TopRank blog post.

These are among her predictions:

“Digital marketing will continue to morph and promotion channels will be further fragmented. The major change for 2015 is NOT about digital marketing. The major change will come from Marketers by going Back to Basics: reevaluate the target audience, determine what works and what doesn’t.”

In other words, don’t worry about your search engine rankings. Go back to the essentials of marketing, but apply them to the new technologies. Focus on connecting with your audience and building up your brand.

This is from Chapter 1 of Didner’s book:

I am part of the 75 percent, the 44 percent, and the 110 club! About 75 percent of Americans bring phones to the bathroom. Approximately 44 percent of cell phone users sleep with their cell phone by their side. And according to figures collected by a screen lock app, the average user actually checks his phone around 110 times a day.

“I’ve concluded that our phone is the adult version of a security blanket or our favorite stuffed animal. Marvelously, this little device does much more than act as a security blanket or substitute for a stuffed animal. It lets us consume content anytime and anywhere. Studies have shown that the typical social media user consumes 285 pieces of content daily, which equates to an eye-opening 54,000 words and, for the truly active, as many as 1,000 clickable links.”

After reading this, I think: produce GREAT content, fairly regularly, promote it through influence, optimize it for local and mobile, and then, finally, if it’s getting traction, the “numbers are there” to justify throwing some dollars at it to promote the piece.

But, behind it all, create a great story, and brand it through the human element of what companies do. We have an unprecedented amount of access to our potential customers, so we need to use it to our full advantage by giving them what they want – authenticity and great content.

What about My Thoughts for 2015?

My thoughts on 2015 are essentially this: I feel it’s just “more of the same.” Some people will be able to market their brand well, while others will not. And, Google will continue to try and refine their algorithm, while also making it harder for people to figure out what it is. So, instead of trying to “game the system,” we should be looking for a better alternative.

Specifically, don’t worry about what Google is doing with its rankings algorithm, just worry about how you are spreading the message of your company and marketing your brand (or, as the case may be, your clients’ stories).

You don’t have any control over how search engines will rank you. The only thing you can control is how you interact with and widen your audience. In 2015, the best way to do this comes down to storytelling.

Link building, content, promotion, PR, social… These strategies really are starting to become one, in my opinion. While they are important, they must be focused around the central story of your company. In order to be at the top of your game, you need to know all the strategies. But, if you are not properly telling your story, how you use them won’t matter.

Take the time to get on the same page with your clients and their consumers, so that you know what the story is you want to tell. Once you have it figured out, you can use all the other tools you have to the best effect.

So, for 2015, make a resolution to focus on storytelling. Figure out what your own voice is, or the voice of your clients. Only YOU can tell YOUR story, so make sure it is being told in the way that you want.

Happy New Year (albeit belated), everyone, and I truly hope this helps build a prosperous 2015 for all of you!

About the Author: Asher Elran is a practical software engineer and a marketing specialist. He is the CEO at Dynamic Search and the founder of Web Ethics.

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, we will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, we only recommend products or services we believe will add value to our readers.

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