Posted by RuthBurrReedy

There’s a lot of talk about branding in the search marketing industry of late, and there’s good reason for that: Taking the time to really understand and define your brand allows you to be much more intentional and focused about the way you market your business online (and off, but this is a digital marketing blog so that’s what we’re talking about today). I recently spoke at the Dallas Fort Worth Search Engine Marketing Association’s annual State of Search conference on how to incorporate brand strategy into your digital strategy (and vice versa), and wanted to share what we’ve learned with the Moz community.

I’ve found that since we started making it a practice to help clients truly understand their own brands, we’ve been able to do much higher-quality work for them; we can connect businesses with their target audiences better, and really plan for the entire funnel.

What is a brand?

When many businesses think about defining their brands, they think about things like:

  • Brand name
  • Logo
  • Colors
  • Fonts
  • Editorial voice
  • Imagery
  • Look and feel

If you’ve taken the time to define these things, congratulations: you have a style guide! A style guide can be a useful component of brand marketing, but it’s only one piece of a much larger whole.

Photo via Pixabay

If your customer is a fish, your brand is the water they swim through. Every interaction people have with your business, from the first blog post they read to the coffee you serve in your office to their interactions with your customer service team, affects their overall perception of your brand. Not only that, but your brand is also affected by the things people say about you when you’re not around. To really curate a strong brand presence, you need to think about how your core values come across in every customer touchpoint.

Is brand a ranking factor?

Rand had a great Whiteboard Friday a while back about this very subject. In short, “brand” isn’t a ranking factor in the traditional sense; there is likely no algorithmic input that measures brand strength. That said, strong brands tend to give off the relevancy and authority signals that Google likes, so we often see websites associated with popular brands ranking highly, even if they haven’t done many SEO fundamentals well.

Google’s most recent Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines sum it up well: “A very positive reputation can be the reason for using the High rating for an otherwise Medium page.” They also direct quality raters to look for expertise, authority and trustworthiness in a high-quality site — all qualities shared by most strong brands.

Building a great brand will also help with some of the usage signals that are likely contributing to Google’s machine learning about what makes a good SERP. Having a recognizable brand presence will contribute to increased click-through rate from SERPs, foster visitor engagement and loyalty, and may also help Google better understand the entity relationships between your business and the products and services you provide.

Taking the time to define your target audiences and their paths to purchase will also help you build a content strategy. If your business is having trouble competing with huge companies on head terms, defining your brand will help you carve out a niche and figure out which long-tail keywords to target to drive top-of-funnel traffic, so by the time someone is ready to buy, they’re more likely to come to you.

Define your brand

There are entire books on the subject of figuring out your brand; we won’t go that in-depth for the purposes of this blog post (if you’re interested in learning more about how to define your brand, HubSpot recently released a guide to brand identity for marketers), but here are a few things you’ll need to nail down.

  • Your core differentiators. What makes you different from your competitors, in your market or online? Why might someone choose to buy from you, instead of them? Look beyond easy answers like “customer service” — every business thinks they have great customer service, so if you’re going to try to differentiate on customer service, you’d better have unbelievably amazing customer service that blows everyone away. Instead, try asking yourself why you do what you do. How does that translate into how your customers experience your business?
  • Your unique values. What is most important to you, as an organization? I recommend having your entire staff do a card-sorting exercise to find the things they think your business values most. Here’s a free set of values cards, and there are lots of others available online. Go through the exercise a few times, narrowing down each time, until you come to a core set of values that represents your company. One question to ask here is “what wouldn’t we compromise on, even if someone was willing to pay us to?” Moz’s TAGFEE values are a great example of this.

Photo via Pixabay

  • Your customer personas. Create a profile for each major audience segment you’re targeting. Who is your ideal customer? Nail down as much information about her as you can, including demographic information and what her own values might be. The more you understand your customers’ needs, fears, and values, the more you’ll be able to create content that really resonates them. Buffer has a great beginner’s guide to marketing personas over on their blog.
  • Your customers’ journeys. Map out the steps someone might take throughout their relationship with you, from the first time they encounter your brand, through consideration and purchase, and into retention. What are their needs and concerns at each step?
  • Your brand personality. Your values will heavily influence your personality, which in turn will affect your style guide. Is your brand more playful or professional? Empathetic or irreverent? Think about how your personality will interact with those of your target personas.
  • Be honest. Brands are like people — we all have our weaknesses and flaws. Make sure you’re taking the time to acknowledge the things you don’t do well, or the areas in which your competitors are doing better. If you don’t acknowledge your flaws, you won’t be able to fix them. It’s OK to be aspirational with your brand, but if you’re going that route, make sure you have concrete steps in place for how you’re going to get better at walking that talk before you put it out there. People aren’t stupid — if you’re saying something about yourself that isn’t true, it will come across in their interactions with you, and that will undermine the very trust you’re trying to build.

Think about the whole task

People don’t just get on the Internet and Google things for fun — they’re trying to complete a task or solve a problem. Think about your customers. What problems are they trying to solve? If your site sells dishwashers, remember that “I need a dishwasher” isn’t the problem — it’s the solution to a larger problem. Maybe your customers just bought a new house and the dishwasher went with the previous owners. Maybe their water bill is too high, or they’re trying to reduce their carbon footprint. Maybe their current dishwasher keeps flooding their kitchen and they’re at their wit’s end. All of these problems could potentially be solved with the exact same product, but if you’re only targeting keywords around specific types of dishwashers, you’ve missed an opportunity to build a relationship.

Start doing some niche keyword research. The idea is to create pieces of content that will draw people in on their first information-gathering search and point them toward in-depth, definitive guides that will help them solve their problems. This is commonly called a hub and spoke model, and is a great way to build the expertise and authority that search engines — and people — are looking for.

Don’t limit your research to Google’s Keyword Planner. It’s a tool designed for paid search, which usually isn’t used to target this kind of top-of-funnel traffic. Instead, get creative! One of my favorite places to look for problem-related keywords is in forums. Once you’ve defined your audience personas, you can figure out the types of websites and forums they might frequent, and start seeing the kind of questions they might be trying to answer. Here’s a screenshot from a DIY forum:

There are one thousand threads on dishwashers alone, on this one site! Check out the SERPs for the questions people are asking and find the areas where no great piece of content is currently ranking — there’s your editorial calendar.

You can also use tools like Facebook’s ad targeting tool to find your target audience’s overlapping interests. Ian Lurie has talked a lot about how to do this — watch his Whiteboard Friday on the IdeaGraph for the full rundown. You can use this data on affinities to create fun, interesting pieces of content that your audience will want to read and share. These pieces are more likely to attract links, and they push that first interaction with your customer even earlier, to before they have a problem — so when they’re searching, they’ve already heard of you and know what you’re about. This data will also help you find the kind of websites your customers frequent, giving you a list of influencers in those spaces to target for link outreach.

Don’t forget about PR! I’m talking public relations, here, not PageRank. Real PR involves building relationships with media outlets and then doing newsworthy things to earn their attention (it does not involve putting a link in a press release and then blasting it out all over the Internet). PR has been a core component of brand building since before the Internet even existed, and by doing it well, you’ll start accruing some links and mentions from reputable news sites, building your own reputation as well.

Meanwhile, use the information on people’s concerns and fears at each step of the buying process that you gathered during your persona research, and create guides that address each of these questions. Doing so will draw people deeper in to your site, and help them feel like they’re making the right decision. By anticipating their needs and addressing them in an authentic way, you build trust. Plus, since you’ve defined your brand values, you can use this content to show your prospective audience the ways in which your values align with theirs.

Brand building and information architecture

Now that you know who your audience is, what their problems are, and how you’re uniquely positioned to solve them, it’s time to build all of that into your website. The degree to which you’re able to do this will depend, of course, on how much you’re able to make changes to your existing site architecture. In situations where you’re building a new site or extensively overhauling your existing site (something which often coincides with a rebrand), however, you can build those customer journeys directly into your user experience. For each page of your site:

  • Map out which of your personas will be served by/interested in that page.
  • Understand where in their decision-making process they’re most likely to be when they see it, and what questions or concerns they might have at that stage.
  • Use page copy to address those concerns and provide the answers to those questions, and/or:
  • Link internally to additional resources to help them complete their task.
  • Provide conversion points that make sense at that stage. For pages that target the awareness-building, information-gathering part of the process, that conversion may not be a purchase; it may be something like watching an informational video, signing up for a newsletter or downloading product specs.
  • Don’t forget about customer loyalty and retention — what do you do after the sale to preserve that customer relationship?

Using this information to create complete customer journeys makes SEO a much more complex, robust marketing process. Instead of simply assigning keywords to pages:

We’re treating every page as part of a holistic marketing message:

Isn’t that a lot of work?

YES. Yes it is. It is a lot of work, and that’s why you should do it! Most of your competitors simply aren’t going to take the time to build site experiences that target the complete customer journey. By investing that time and effort, you’ll be way ahead of the game.

Tracking brand-driven SEO

Of course, since this is going to take a lot of time and effort, you’ll want to make sure you’re tracking how well it’s all going:

  • Invest in CRM: You’re going to need a Customer Relationship Management tool to help you, you know, manage customer relationships. Make sure you’re able to track multiple interactions, so you can understand which activities on your site are more likely to attract, convert, and retain customers.
  • Enable demographic tracking: Persona work involves a lot of hypotheses, so use demographic tracking in Google Analytics to check on whether your customers are who you think they are, and do what you think they’ll do (this may involve updating your privacy policy).
  • Track user paths: Use the Users Flow report in Google Analytics to find places where your users behave in ways you didn’t expect; this will help you pinpoint areas where you’re not giving them what they need.
  • Change attribution models: Brand building means that people are more likely to convert on branded terms, or even direct traffic. If you’re using last-click attribution, all that work you did to get people there won’t get any credit for the final purchase. Switch to a linear, position-based or time-decay model so you can better understand conversion assists. For more on this topic, check out Google’s AdWords Help on attribution modeling.
  • Monitor brand mentions: Use a tool like HootSuite, Google Alerts, or IFTT to track mentions of your brand, and join conversations where appropriate.
  • Track co-occurrence: One of the signals we’re ultimately hoping to build with this whole-funnel campaign is co-occurrence: people searching for your products/services along with your brand name. Co-occurrence tends to correlate with higher rank, and can lead to branded suggested searches from Google as well. Use a tool like KeywordTool.io to track what words people search for along with your brand name. This will help you find and combat negative brand associations, as well.

Understand the timeline

Starting early can be a powerful relationship-building strategy, but it’s also one that takes time to start generating results. Be realistic about how long it might take someone to travel all the way through their customer journey to purchase. Make sure you’re also investing in marketing strategies that will pay off in the short- to medium-term, like PPC marketing, and don’t neglect your high-converting head terms while you’re building out this longer-tail strategy.

Over time, your brand will become a flywheel that’s turning faster and faster on its own, but make sure you’re giving yourself some room and some time for that to happen. When it does happen, you’ll have stronger relationships with your customers, rank for a whole host of long-tail terms, and have built the kind of quality signals Google likes to see. Search engines, your customers, and your business: it’s a win/win/win.

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