It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of search engine traffic, and the strategies that you can use to attract and keep it. But here's something everybody who loves SEO needs to recognize: It's dangerous, short-sighted, and risky to count on a search engine monopoly to subsidize your business model, not without diversification.
That's why you should favor an SEO strategy that makes sense for promotion,even if the search engines completely ignored what you did.
But let's take things a step further by looking at how you can diversify your incoming traffic streams and boost revenue and awareness without the search engines.
Some of these tactics will help your SEO, but that's not the focus. Today, it's all about securing business growth without the aid of Google.
Let's break it down into a five-part process.
1. Join Your Audience's Largest Communities and Forums
This is huge.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out that people won't find out about you unless they actually see you. In order for them to see you, you're going to have to go where they are.
Now, I can already hear the mouse clicks as you race to your browser's URL bar and type "Twitter" or "Facebook," but let me stop you right there. Social media can certainly be a great place to gain exposure and drive traffic, but it's not where the topically oriented conversations are happening.
Facebook is a place for friends and family to share bite-size images that make them laugh or go "aww." The sooner you understand that, the sooner you'll be able to master Facebook marketing, and the sooner you'll realize it's not the best place to find relevant traffic.
As for Twitter, it's a great place to find influencers, and we'll talk more about that later. But Twitter isn't really a place where in-depth conversations are happening, especially not about specific topics.
So I want to stress this. I'm not necessarily talking about social networks. I'm specifically talking about the places on the Internet where your target audience hangs out. There are a number of answers here, and you need to broaden your scope a bit in order to figure out where these people are.
- Internet Forums and Message Boards. These are some of the most important places you can get involved, and they're also seriously overrated. I bring this up a lot, but it's really important and it gets ignored. People actually spend more time on Internet forums than they do on blogs. About 62 percent of social media users visit a message board at least once a week. Only 54 percent visit a blog that often.
- Blogs. Obviously, blogs are still hugely important, though. Any blog that has an active comment section is a good place to join the conversation.
- Google+ Communities. This is what has really helped Google+ come into its own as a genuine player in the social networking sphere. Google+ communities are topically oriented discussion groups, pretty much like forums, except that the accounts are tied directly to real people. This is where some of the most in-depth conversations are taking place about specific subjects.
- Reddit Subreddits. Reddit is supposedly a link-sharing, social bookmarking site, but as it's matured it's becoming more of a discussion forum. Do a search for "reddit [keyword]" in Google to see if there are any subreddits where your target audience might be having discussions. Bear in mind that Reddit is extremely anti-commercialist and you could get banned from the site if you use it to promote yourself too frequently. Links are only welcome if they are extremely relevant. If nothing else, Reddit can be a great place to learn more about your target audience, and what they like to "upvote" on the site.
- LinkedIn Groups. If you're in a B2B sector, this can be a good place to find topically oriented discussions.
- Facebook Groups. While these aren't typically as active as Google+ communities, they are at least topically oriented, as opposed to the Facebook News Feed, which is for the aforementioned cat videos and image macros.
- Question and Answer Sites (Quora). These are another one of my favorites, Quora in particular. While a single answer with a relevant link in it doesn't send a huge amount of traffic, it does build up over time as you answer more questions. The most important thing I've noticed about Quora is the fact that links tend to keep sending a steady trickle of traffic for a long time.
Regardless of where these discussions are taking place, your role is going to play a similar part:
- The fundamental rule is to be helpful. People can be spotty as entertainers and will often be ignored or banned if they promote themselves too heavily, but being helpful is always welcome.
- Promotion is best left in the sidelines. A link in your forum signature or the equivalent is usually the best choice. For platforms that don't have signatures or anything similar, don't be the guy who will only post something if you can find a way to work a link in. Post links only when they are relevant and helpful to the discussion, even if that means writing a blog post to answer a question on a message board. In the meantime, take part in the conversation and be helpful even when a link wouldn't make sense. It's important that the members of the forum feel like you're "one of them," and that's not going to happen if you only post when there's something immediately in it for you.
- Be wary of sites without avatars that people can use to recognize you. For example, usernames on Reddit typically go ignored, and without avatars, very few people on the site are memorable, even if their posts are wildly successful. These sites are still worth using, but primarily for understanding your audience and what they like, not for building a reputation.
- In addition to answering questions, you should also post your own helpful content, guides, etc. I'm specifically talking about posting these directly to the site, as opposed to posting a link. You can certainly place a link within these guides, but try to treat these posts almost like guest posts on popular blogs. Look at previous successful posts to get an idea of what style and length people are looking for.
One more bit of advice: focus your attention on a limited number of platforms. It's much better to completely win over a single community, even a small one, than it is to have a scattered presence on a large number of platforms. Community strategies tend to work only after people have seen you more than once, and always had a favorable experience when they did. It's much less common for people to see a single post by you on a forum with a link, click on it, and then make a purchase.
2. Capture Attention With Problem-Solving Content
It's sort of a no-brainer these days that you need great content in order to capture or keep an audience, but all too often this ends up falling by the wayside. A big part of the reason for this is the ambiguity of a phrase like "great content."
What you really need to do is produce content that solves a problem for people. You need to think of the content itself as a product, and that means defining its unique selling proposition, figuring out its target audience, and working through exactly how it's going to help the person on the other end. This is the activity that keeps people coming back.
Make sure you're solving the right problem. This is a big one. While it can be wasteful to perform marketing research every single time you create a blog post, it's good to have at least some data to work with when you're deciding what to write about. I'm not just talking about keyword research here. Remember, it's not about the subject, it's about the problem.
A few ways to discover the problem:
- The most obvious place to start is with your product. What problem does it solve?
- You don't necessarily want to produce content that solves the exact same problem as your product. In fact, this can sometimes hurt revenue. Instead, you want to ask yourself who is interested in this problem, and what related problems might they have?
- Once you've defined your target audience, the best way to figure out what problems they have is to simply ask them. If you have an email list, there's no harm in emailing your audience and asking them what problems they are struggling with.
- If you don't have an existing audience already, pay attention to what people are talking about in the forums and online communities we talked about in the last section. What kinds of questions keep coming up over and over again? What are people griping about the most? These are the kinds of problems you want to solve with your content.
- Additionally, you can run surveys using a tool like SurveyMonkey to find out what people are struggling with.
Once you've found your problems, the next step is to solve them in ways that haven't been done (or at least done well) before. This is all about your unique selling proposition. Think of your blog like a magazine. You need to stand out in order to keep an audience.
This all happens on two levels:
- Ideally, each piece of content you post to your blog should solve a problem in a unique way. (I say specifically "to your blog," because you may end up repeating yourself a little when you promote yourself on other platforms, and this is OK, as long as the audience is different.)
- Much more importantly, however, your entire blog should have a unique selling proposition. The best way to accomplish this is usually by targeting a specific kind of person in a way that appeals to them. It's important to point this out because it's not the same thing as a specific subject. Most people will get bored of an extremely niche subject, no matter how interesting it might be to them.
A few other things you can do to make the most of your content strategy:
- Do not forget how important it is to build up an email list. No matter how great your content is, most people will forget the name of your blog and never return, even if they really like what you have to offer. Your email signup form should be highly visible, and users should have an incentive to subscribe, like a free e-book, a 30-day challenge, a tool, a video, etc.
- Get your information from outside of your particular corner of the blogosphere. While it's a good idea to reference ideas brought up by similar bloggers in order to stay topical, this shouldn't be the core of your content. You want to get your information from less-obvious sources like academic journals, books, interviews with experts, raw data, personal experience, anecdotes, original research, and from other industries.
- Creativity is an important component of creating interesting content, and that's usually the result of combining ideas that seem otherwise unrelated. Again, draw analogies and bring in ideas from places outside of your specific filter bubble.
You need to actually promote your content in order for any of this to matter. Obviously, you should leverage your presence in the communities I mentioned earlier in order to get your content in front of people. Brian Dean has also shared some awesome untapped promotional strategies:
- Forums (told you!).
- Let influencers know whenever you mention them in a piece of content (in particular by thanking them on Google+).
- Don't be afraid to ask readers to share your content explicitly. (To this, I'd like to add that it helps a huge amount to spice your blog posts up with embedded social media posts, since bite-size content tends to do better on social networks than full blog posts.)
- Quote experts and then let them know about it.
- Send out emails in the early afternoon when they are most likely to get read.
- Talk to people who post link roundups.
- LinkedIn Groups (what did I say?).
- Find people who like to post curated content.
- Use a syndication service like Outbrain or Taboola to pay for visitors.
- Content curation sites like Paper.li and Scoop.it are gold mines of people who like to share content.
- Use social sharing communities like Social Buzz Club and Triberr to get in touch with other bloggers in the same boat.
3. Get Mentioned on Top Platforms
It should go without saying that a bit of mainstream press can go a long way.
Journalists are always on the lookout for a new story, and if you can help them accomplish that, you can put yourself in front of a big audience and gain quite a bit of traction.
One of the best ways to accomplish this is through a site called HARO, or Help a Reporter Out. This is a great way to get in touch with professional journalists and let them borrow your expertise in exchange for some publicity.
I also can't stress enough that signing up for HARO as a journalist can also be a great idea, as long as you meet their requirements. This is great because it makes it easy to find people to interview and it can put you in touch with a lot of experts.
Signing up for HARO as a source, on the other hand, isn't free. If you'd rather not spend the $20 a month to sign up, I would still highly recommend reaching out to journalists. While the response rate can be low, the payoff is more than worth it.
The real question is how to capture the attention of a journalist to begin with. Here are a few pointers:
- Remember, journalism is all about the story. Journalists aren't at all interested in talking to you about a product you created, unless it's exceptional. Instead, they are looking for news.
- Focus on actions. A journalist is going to be interested in something you have done, not something you sell. Examples would include publicity stunts, creative charity donations, interesting events, initiatives, and so on.
- The alternative is to focus on expertise. Again, you aren't talking about a product, but you are offering your insight as a professional to a story that will be relevant to a professional. For example, you can offer your expert input on a current event.
- If you're using HARO, make sure you only respond to queries where you can be genuinely helpful as a source.
- If you're reaching out to journalists directly, make sure you have some kind of story pitch already prepared. Don't simply approach them saying that you are an expert, and expect that to mean anything useful. While most journalists aren't going to want you to approach them with a full story or outline in hand, they will want some idea of the story angle.
4. Become a Contributor on an Industry Leading Platform
In addition to contacting journalists, if possible, becoming a contributor to a popular blog or online magazine is one of the smartest things you can do.
A lot of digital marketers will talk to you about how great guest posting can be, but in this case I'm talking about taking things to the next level. We're talking about multi-author online magazines, such as Search Engine Watch. When you post frequently to one of the top sites for your audience, you get the kind of much-needed repeat exposure that can make all the difference.
Becoming a regular contributor on a top platform isn't necessarily as hard as you might think. While you probably won't be a journalist for The New York Times anytime soon, plenty of high-quality publications are always looking for more content.
If you have at least some history getting published on high-quality sites, there are plenty of multi-author magazines that will be willing to take you seriously, especially if you aren't asking for any financial compensation.
5. Use the Power of Influencers
This has already come up a few times during this post, and it's easy to see why. As much as the Internet has given us the power to publish and reach people on our own, there are still influential people, and they are still very important. In fact, they may be more important than ever.
The difference is that the modern "gatekeeper" doesn't look like the CEO of a massive media conglomerate. The modern gatekeeper is instead an influential tweeter, a blogger with a large audience, or a YouTuber who gets millions of views every time. These people are influential, but they aren't deciding who is and who isn't getting published. They're simply the people who have an audience to send your way.
We've already talked about a few of the ways that influencers can help, but let's go a bit more in depth:
- I mentioned when we were talking about HARO that it can be very useful to sign up as a journalist, not just as a source, because it gives you the chance to interview people. Interviewing experts doesn't just spice up your content, it can also put you in touch with influencers. These influencers are naturally willing to promote the interview and share it with their followers, because it doesn't just help you, it helps them.
- Again, anytime you mention an influencer in your content, it's a good idea to let them know about it. This can be a good way to launch a conversation that could end up being mutually beneficial.
- Try emailing influencers every once in a while when you're putting together your content. Even a short answer to a quick question can be a good way to spice up your content and give it a more journalistic feel. Naturally, many influencers are happy to see that you used what they said in a blog post, and they might be more willing to promote you as a result. Your audience, as well as other influencers, will also take you more seriously if you do this fairly frequently.
- Be helpful to influencers. Email them with information that you think will help them solve a problem they are dealing with, and offer your expertise to help with any specific problems they might be having. Strike up a conversation and connect with them as an individual. Keep in touch, even when it isn't business related. This kind of connection can be very valuable.
- An influencer doesn't have to be somebody with a massive audience. They could be a blogger in pretty much the same boat as you. Reaching out to people like this and asking if they would like to write a guest post, or join you in a podcast, can be very rewarding.
You Don't Need Google
As useful as search engine traffic can be, you don't need it to launch a successful business online.
When you seek out the communities, influencers, and platforms that your audience is spending time with, you can gradually persuade those people to see what you have to say. After capturing and keeping that interest by solving problems for these people, you can build up an audience and continue to grow.
Don't rely on the whims of a search engine monopoly to keep your business afloat. Diversify.