How the ASoT of digital marketing can make you miss your marketing goals.
Four important lessons learned for managing SEO, SMM, SEM, SERPs (et al). How to keep the ASoT from strangling your marketing plans.
There’s a Latin phrase for just about every occasion and situation. And as we know, quidquid Latine dictum sit, altum viditur (everything sounds more impressive when said in Latin). What better way to add mystery to your work than to use a dead language to explain it? Maybe that’s why almost every profession on the planet does this, digital marketing included. Marketing in general and as a trade is rife with a type of sorcery and a code not unlike Latin. Consider the “alphabet soup of tasks” (ASoT); a mind-numbing deluge of acronyms that describe every task: SEO, SMM, SEM, SERP, CRM, CMS, MAP, PPC, CPC, CPL, CTA, CTR, CX, UX, GDD, GA, GSC, CR, CRO, KPI – and on and on.
I laugh now because there’s not one of them in that list that I cannot recall the approximate year when it became the hottest newest thing in digital marketing. The list of ASoT reminds me of marketing’s transition from print to digital, when people were absolutely crazy for “desktop publishing experts.” The fact was, what they needed was someone who was well-versed in graphic production and could use the new tools of digital publishing. Then there was the mad dash to grow “Webmasters” – which thankfully never went anywhere. Nowadays, I’m no longer just a writer; I’m a content creator – as though all those years of writing for the Business Journal was… not content?
But I digress. This article is chiefly an exploration of a similar perspective for digital marketing, and my-oh-my have we grown in complexity. And here’s my admission of guilt. Many of the lessons I offer here come from my early shortcomings as a marketer. I made every mistake possible and stuck around to witness the wreckage. My greatest mistakes occurred when I relied too heavily on digital tools and tricks when I should have stuck with old school marketing and used them to support everything else I was doing. So when I say these are ‘hard won’ lessons, I really mean it. To help us along, I distilled my big lessons into four main parts.
#1: Be very wary of planning your marketing services ad hoc.
Digital marketing as a profession was launched soon after people realized the importance of search engine optimization in 1997. It was around that time that I first saw the term “SEO” in print. Back then, we worked with new and very clumsy tools. At first, I tried to thread the needle between effective PR and other emerging technologies like social media, content management systems, et al. But I was really good at spamming the hell out of Alta Vista and other search engines, which was pretty easy.
A few years later, as audiences overflowed on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, some marketers made up their own unique certification programs to codify whatever aspect of the ASoT they thought was important. Even schools like San Francisco State University got into the act with new curricula for a certificate in social media marketing. I’ll get deeper into the fallacy of eProfessions, but thus it went: et ita fit. The problem is that some managers are still stuck with the belief that tasks like SEO, SEM, and SMM are so specialized that only special people can provide them. They use that rationale that they can reach their lofty (often unrealistic) marketing goals if they acquire services ad hoc (as needed), and separate from the total marketing communications program.
I agree that there was a time when this approach was warranted: when the methodology was experimental when effectiveness was debatable. Back when metrics were in short supply, we really HAD to take this one step at a time and see how ASoT services meshed with our ‘real word’ campaigns. But that time has long since past. A few issues remain, but the gaps are minimal. Much of what we do with great certainty integrates SEO with the overall marketing communications process.
In summary, THREE reasons that planning ASoT marketing services ad hoc is just a bad idea:
- Ad hoc marketing lacks perspective.
- Ad hoc marketing lacks central planning.
- And ASoT service providers tend to be self-serving.
Here’s something else about ASoT ad hoc that will sound pretty harsh. Most DIY marketers use these services to spin up separate cogs in the hopes that at least one of them will do something productive. There’s nothing wrong with that approach—per se—as long as you’re prepared to chalk up some losses. But imagine if you spend as much effort and time working within a comprehensive marketing communications strategy that includes organic growth, a mature brand, and consistent messaging that resonates with your target audience? Blend in ASoT as support for those goals and you’re on your way. Vade ad Deum!
#2: Check your digi-bias at the door.
In 1997, I was biased that SEO would conquer old school marketing communications. You could sell anything, as long as your search result controlled the first two or three pages of results. I was a victim of my own success. You can read about my recovery from spamdexing here, but the fact is, I was not alone. Not by a long shot. Much of digital marketing’s ASoT is a direct product of marketer’s anxiety over how to engage audiences. And service providers are always ready to answer questions about how to increase traffic, without ever explaining more than how much it’ll cost or how it will blend with your branding or messaging strategies. To be perfectly honest, the success of ASoT providers is wholly dependent upon their ability to communicate the benefits of various aspects of “online promotions” with lesser regard for the total picture of digital marketing.
Invite enough ASoT providers into your marketing tent, and before you knew it, the showy tail will be wagging the marketing dog with expensive initiatives codified into complex, often impenetrable technical processes. The end result is that the ASoT draws everyone’s attention from ‘old school’ marketing methodology. It tends to push back important issues like content development so that more attention can be spent on granular SEO issues like page load speed and unique sessions. The realization, often late, is that even great results from one tiny aspect of website performance does not matter when you miss sales targets. Not in the least. We cannot afford to be biased toward SEO or PPC (for example); not in this interconnected, asynchronous, multi-channel world. If you don’t weigh the totality of marketing functions then you lack perspective. Period.
One of the easiest lessons learned as far as the world of marketing is concerned: the more things change, the more you realize that nothing changes. Sounds like life, doesn’t it? Markets still create needs. Customers still want information. Marketers still have to communicate. The tools have advanced our understanding of consumer behavior, but it’s still hard work to convert interest into sales. Look past the bias (that we need new stuff just to keep up) and remember—at the end of the day, the core job is to close sales.
#3: The ASoT may be a skill, but is definitely NOT a profession.
The big question then is, do we really need specialty ASoT eProfessions to make marketing work? eGod, I hope not. Ok. This is one mistake I did not fall for—completely. I did, at one time, think I had Alta Vista so figured out that I was going to get rich because I could get anything on the first search page. Then along came Google and then, reality came crashing in. None of my so-called search engine expertise mattered! When social media barged into our lives, I was convinced it didn’t matter either. Then this article on Huffington Post confirmed it: getting a ‘degree’ in social media wasn’t all that great. Then Peter Shankman (www.shankman.com) had a real slap-fest with “social media experts” with this gem:
Being an expert in Social Media is like being an expert at taking the bread out of the refrigerator. You might be the best bread-taker-outer in the world, but you know what? The goal is to make an amazing sandwich, and you can’t do that if all you’ve done in your life is taken the bread out of the fridge.
I thought Shankman was seriously woke. He woke a bunch of other people who were about to make the same mistake as I made with SEO. The whole pantheon of SMM “professionals” was in serious trouble. Then, a series of surveys conducted by Ascend2 showed that marketing professionals were evenly split over the opinion that there are not enough high-caliber skilled professionals who can deliver results from social media campaigns. In other words, nobody was able to show return on investment for their activities on social media. Nil admirari… it’s never been a good idea to measure ROI from one type of activity.
Back to SEO. Blogger Brad Urani (www.techli.com) boldly claimed that anyone selling “SEO services” were running a scam.
It wasn’t always a scam, it just stopped working on April 24th, 2012. That was the day Google released an algorithm update dubbed “Penguin” that unquestionably and permanently sealed their fate as victors in a 14-year war between them and those who tried to rank higher by gaming the system. While many lament its death, SEO really was cheating, and it was bad for consumers. The Internet is better off without it.
I think calling “SEO” a scam is a little heavy-handed. There are good SEO tactics (even post-Penguin, Hummingbird) that are based on common sense approaches to site management and content marketing. And I also know digital marketing professionals who know how to squeeze the most out of SEO so that your site performs within the plan rather than somewhere outside it. But, if you let this get away from you (and hire an agency to handle SEO specifically, for example), you’ll chase around Page Speed and Bounce Rate until your head spins. What if traffic to your site is still too low? You’ll want to contact a pro who understands PPC (pay per click) campaigns, where you’ll shift your attention to CPC, CPM, and CPL until your head spins the other direction. Suddenly aware that you don’t have a good CTA… e-God, do you see where this is leading you?
Imagine if you were so focused on getting the ingredients to make Peter Shankman’s sandwich that you never get around to making it? It seems silly, doesn’t it? But that’s the danger of giving too much weight to individual tasks. The “secret” remedy isn’t a secret at all. Sure, manage SEO, PPC, CTA (and on and on), but remember that the best search results come from organic strategies that involve proper content placement and consistent content growth. It takes time, but this type of optimization that any digital marketing professional worth their salt is capable of handling for you.
Lesson learned: the sum of professionally executed, effective marketing is greater than any single acronym.
#4: Beware of jargon (and Latin).
Common wisdom tells us that expertise means nothing unless we understand how we will achieve our goals. I can impress the hell out of you with all the Latin in the world and never once explain how I’ll actually accomplish anything. That’s how the ASoT serves to impress the indoctrinated. Thus the warning…
Jargon – no matter how smart or trendy – is the master of nothing.
That phrase inspired me to write the following sentence on a whiteboard during an SEO/SERP seminar for a bunch of PR colleagues (who were trying to sort out the importance of the ASoT):
Effectiveness is enhanced when all activities are aligned with a common goal. Efficiency is gained when all processes follow a purposeful communication strategy.
Tasks and tools, no matter how cool they sound, cannot surpass the arts they are intended to serve (e.g., branding, content creation, planning, market research). I have no problem with people learning and working all things SEO and SMM. I have no problem if somebody does a lot of that kind of work (hint: I do quite a bit of that kind of work myself). But when we surrender to the ‘mystery’ of the tech and allow jargon to define our marketing goals, that’s when we lose vital perspective on how we REALLY will achieve them. That is the big WHY purchasing vital marketing services “ad hoc” is not practical nor sustainable. Final lesson: consider each specialization as you would any other, then integrate them into a robust plan that includes research, planning, implementation, evaluation, and a program for content creation, digital marketing, and – most important – a way to convert all of those interactions and engagements into sales.
Now then… Caveat emptor. And good hunting!
Standing invitation to all: I am appreciative of comments, suggestions, ideas. In particular, please point out where you believe I’m am completely off my rocker, or just flat out wrong. But I also love a nice complement (once in a while). My Marketing 101 articles undergo constant revision. This one originally appeared in 2009 as a 600+ word blob. Today, it has grown into a hefty 2,100 tome (I see the outlines of a book, or at least a seminar). And it’s all thanks to conversations, discussions, and a few honest debates with colleagues.