Last week Interflora was quite humiliatingly outed for its use of advertorials and unnatural link building; even for its own brand name, the site all but disappeared from the SERPs. Without speaking about Interflora or a collection of newspaper sites that were clearly selling advertorials directly, Matt Cutts wrote a statement reiterating Google’s position on paid links: it’s bad, don’t do it. While that position has been clear for some time, it’s not been clear that Google was prepared to act quite so abruptly on punishing major brands. With the dust from the hit still floating around, it appears that this is another step by Google to clean up Search Engine Optimisation, and another notch in what has been a tumultuous two years for the industry since the first Panda Update in April 2011.
With advertorial link building now clearly presenting higher risk, some SEOs must be wondering where to pivot. Inevitably, brand building will seem a likely option, and building credibility through quality content and inbound methods is the future. I’ve read and heard this rhetoric many times before, but I’ve often wondered how suitable the wedding of SEO and brand building will actually be.
SEO Agencies and the Opportunity for Brand Building
In marketing agency world, the creative agency usually has the clearest role and most authority when it comes to building strong brands. The relationship between the creative agency and large brands has been existence for the best part of a century, thus wrestling brand building strategy to a new bed fellow will be a tall order for the SEO industry.
When clients are smaller, and somewhat more frugal about agency picks, search agencies have rather more opportunity to help shape a brand. But some of the discourse I’ve heard about blending SEO and brand building troubles me. It often implies the rhetoric of new media icons like Seth Godin with an obsession for product enhancement, as if the website or product itself is the core of a brand identity.
New Media Discourse isn’t Always True
Often times, the rhetoric fails to realise that consumers rarely get passionate about brands, and words like love, advocate and engagement are nowhere near their thinking. Despite our own love of blogs, Twitter, Vine, Apple and all manner of things digital, these are actually still minority interests, and that most people have a very passive relationship with media.
The excellent slide deck by Wieden + Kennedy on How to (Not) Fail has important message for modern day brand marketers:
Why is Brand Building Important Anyway?
Despite the rhetoric, brand building is not about creating a language of love, advocacy and consumer engagement. As slide 47 of the above deck aptly shows, purchase frequency for many consumer brands rarely gets up to a perceived ‘fan’ level of 10+ annual purchases, thus we may find ourselves confused of the roles that brands now play. Turning to David A.Aaker’s book Building Strong Brands can serve as a reminder for the value that brand equity provides:
- Brand Loyalty – while this may not effect purchase frequency, it is important in consumer decisions around their next purchase. In short – will it be you?
- Brand Awareness – the anchor for which other associations can be attached.
- Perceived Quality – a vital driver in the reason to buy and the price consumers will pay.
- Brand Associations – emotions driven by brand usage and creation of brand extensions.
Creating Brand Identities – a New Role for Search Agencies
Given that the creation of quality content based marketing and SEO is now intertwined, it is vital that search agencies approach content marketing strategy with a clear brand identity. If this does not already exist (and more often than not, it won’t) then it is the agency’s role to inform the client to establish a brand identity. This begins, with the creation of two key documents – a Brand Essence and a Message Architecture.
Discovering a Brand Essence
The creation of a branding strategy starts with the ‘discovery’ of a brand essence. A map of words associated with the brand identity, expressing core values and a single statement that captures an essence. This can usually be reached by challenging a group of key brand stakeholders to complete a card sort for seven ‘categories’:
- How it makes me feel – emotions associated with the brand from the audience’s perspective.
- What it says about me – how the audience interprets themselves when using or purchasing from the brand.
- Functional benefits – what the content gives the audience beyond emotional responses.
- Audience personality – words that fit for the typical audience member’s personality.
- Facts/Icons/Truths – the audience’s ideals and aspirations.
- Product/Content – what the audience wants from the product or content.
- Core Values – words and phrases associated with the brand essence.
An essence is the central statement, which all stakeholders should be happy with without compromise! This can take some time – I’ve heard of essences only being arrived at over more than ten hours of meetings! However, it is the crucial document from which to shape brand strategy – an important reference point for marketing communications in a future of continuously fragmenting media.
The framework for a brand essence is shown below, but it is for you (and your brands) to fill out:
Message Architecture and the Alignment of Content Strategy
From this document you should also be able to construct a central ‘message architecture’. Content strategist Margot Bloomstein defines this as “An outline or hierarchy of communication goals that reflects a common vocabulary.” This serves as the reference for content marketing – a guide for design and writing content creators – and should contain the following:
Primary message: The most important thing you want your user to know or feel after viewing your content.
Secondary messages: a group of messages that support the primary message and provide further context
An example for a marketing agency might be the following:
- Inspiring Creativity
- Drawing on any sources that we think our audience can use to inspire them
- Showcasing network talent.
- Funny but Focused
- Humorous but not random.
- Tells jokes where jokes are due, but don’t go off on tangents.
- Don’t make fun of people’s submissions or work.
- A focus on the new.
- Don’t give into hype! Explain why new is good in real world terms.
A Reference for Communication
I’ve begrudgingly worked on a couple of content briefs where the brand essence and message architecture wasn’t defined. Consequently I had little choice but take the route that I thought was best for the client without a clear understanding of what they wanted. The conclusions to such pieces are usually damp squibs, since you have little idea of how the audience are going to react and how the brand really wants to be perceived. They are essential components of content strategy – do not start without them.
Conclusion – Don’t Fall into Brand Building Traps!
To conclude, when the search agency does manage to pivot into brand building for a client, it is vital that they avoid four key traps:
- Give into the rhetoric and jargon which litters modern marketing, by believing that any audience can come to love a brand.
- Allowing client’s products (or indeed their websites) define their brand.
- Create a brand identity first and then overlay SEO – the two should be intertwined.
- Continual focus on tactical campaigns to build links, rather than long term strategy to build a converting audience.
Instead, focus on creating reference points to inform brand communications from hereon – with a solid Brand Essence and a clear Message Architecture.