Meeting Conversational Demand: A Factual Vs. PR-based Approach

This post first appeared on MediaPost Search Insider on January 19, 2011.

This article builds on my last column, “Understanding Conversational Demand in Social and Search,” which I would recommend reading first.
I looked at social conversation assessment in my last column, so the parallels should be more apparent now between query-based search demand, versus the aspects of “conversational demand” and their respective authoritative content supply. Make no mistake about it: social networks are a massive foundation for query and navigational behavior that most often mirrors and reflects what is happening in search. Think of the questions being asked in social as being their own queries of sorts, questions that may or may not be met by an authoritative answer. Just as a brand considers it a basic exercise to ensure that their own digital assets rank highly for brand terms in search, they should be aware of the brand conversations going on in social, and meeting them with a live community manager who also acts as an “in-the-moment” steward of a brand’s content.
The comparative aspects of conversational demand and the early history of search engines are tremendous, with particular regard to the fact that many search queries went unanswered without an authoritative content result or without a conduit to the proper answer. By addressing conversation demand at the brand level for both brand and generic themes, an opportunity exists to interact with these audiences in a sincere, useful and meaningful way through live content and conversation, and in a way that also greatly benefits the brand or marketer.
As I go about advising my clients about these activities from a search and social perspective, I have identified a few different broad obstacles that get in the way of effectively measuring and acting upon search demand, and even more so for conversation demand. When a marketer goes out to measure the space for either brand or generic terms, or brand and generic conversations, there is a broad commonality that breaks into two key areas: The factual, and the more PR-based and sensitive questions about the brand. There are other areas that commonly addressed, but for this article the focus will remain on the factual, versus the (often) confrontational.
Often the show stopper for any work that includes the word “social” is determined by whether or not a company perceives the marketer to be attempting to “encroach” in any areas that might otherwise fall into the area of PR management, crisis management, brand management, etc. This is a problem that is more reflective of large organizations and enterprises in the sense that they consider and lump anything “social” as part of a channel, or owned by a certain group organizationally, and have not come to terms with the fact that social is something that runs through everything. Just like search, social is not a channel, it is not a campaign, and it is not a small department sheltered off from the rest of the organization, perceived powerful, yet effectively powerless and destined to have the networks swing them by the tail of their brand promise. So the marketer who wants to effectively use social is often completely shut off and locked out of the process because of the incorrect perception that they are encroaching on somebody else’s territory. Again, this is the not the fault of the contemporary marketer who is just trying to do their job, and to the contrary, it is a problem that will come to bite back at the organization’s overall marketing efforts, and in many cases land them back at square one. No sour grapes here, because I work with both search and PR organizations, and across many different aspects of an enterprise. The above example could also apply to other areas of an organizations with the activities reversed, and the point is that the problem is really about social hoarding at the enterprise level.
In assessing conversation demand, marketers should focus on the factual, not brand problems or crises But what puts everything into perspective for marketing and PR is that both keywords and conversations can be divided into either the factual, or the PR/crisis-related. In this filter, the duties of the marketer and communications pro are clearly divided, in a useful and meaningful way.
Extending this concept out into conversation demand, a marketing team has more freedom to address the factual happenings around their brand in various networks, and address them in a live setting, and also create and direct networks users to the proper factual content.
For example, if you conduct an audit of various conversations around the internet about your brand, you may find that people are asking about a well-known facet of your brand history or value proposition that is already available on your web site. Converse with them, and point them to the link. Or maybe they want to know about a new store location that is not already on your website — create that page, help them out by answering their question, and point them to a site if more info is warranted. You can answer questions and create content about the facts of your brand and generic conversation space all day long. In every vertical space, the conversation opportunity is so massive that you may not to even cover it in a broad manner for many years.
Those questions about why the brand may or may not have spilled oil, may or may not have bed bugs, or may or may not have a defective product can be left to the communications team. But for marketers to address factual conversational demand in a sincere and meaningful way, there is more than enough to be done.

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Understanding ‘Conversational Demand’ In Social And Search

This post first appeared on MediaPost Search Insider on January 5, 2011.

As I continue along in my sporadic series about brand content publishing in a real-time marketing environment, today I’m going to touch on the concept of assessing “conversational demand,” in social and network marketing, as opposed to just “keyword demand” in search. For a deeper background and foundation on this topic, I would also recommend reading the following columns: “Marketing in the Moment,” “More on Marketing in the Moment,” and “Ramping Up For a Bigger Content Publishing Strategy.”

Understanding search demand

To better understand “conversational demand,” it helps to first consider the concept of “keyword demand.” Keyword demand simply means to look deeper and more strategically at keyword metrics, at both a macro and micro level, for the purpose of benchmarking specific themes and topics being sought out in search. A strategic digital content plan takes keyword demand into fundamental consideration, and also considers the available content supply for the given keywords and user search language being assessed. For a couple of examples, think about a gap analysis comparing your own supply of content that matches the search lexicon of your given category in assessing how much opportunity exists for your own company or site; and also consider the amount of content being provided by both direct and indirect competition against the same or similar set.

Though the concept of creating content to match keyword research and volumes has been a basic mantra of search marketing (both paid and natural) since it began in the mid-late ’90′s, it seems that brands are just now beginning to wake up to the possibilities of actively producing content on a massive scale to meet ongoing keyword demand. Clearly, the gap between the amounts of content produced by 99.9% of major brands versus the demand is staggering, and can be decreased by simply embracing the concept of active publishing and real-time marketing. As I’ve stated in previous columns, new companies will be built on this concept, and others will start to lag far behind, or even get crushed in the fast moving world of real-time marketing.

Understanding conversational demand

While the concept of “keyword research” and “keyword demand” may not be so new, the concept of conversational demand may considered entirely new for lagging enterprise brands, but it is just as important in cultivating a solid real-time marketing strategy with search and social at the core. Brands embracing real-time search and social publishing must be fluid, and active in production and engagement. Being active means being alive and in the moment in a web landscape that is moving instantaneously, in terms of both content creation and assessing what is on people’s minds at any given time. Content strategies are anything but passive, even if the goal is to achieve content success in search alone, particularly because search engines look to active social cues in how they determine results for a significant number of queries.

But being active and agile means being engaging with your audience, and also knowing that conversation is content. Other factors in being successful with social content strategies (as a result of analyzing conversation demand) include:

1) Knowing what your audience is looking for

2) Knowing where they seek it out

3) Knowing how they communicate

4) Knowing which types of digital assets are critical

5) Communicating back properly, with the right answer, in the right way, with utmost sincerity, and with a strategic approach in mind

Determining and assessing conversational demand is much more complex than assessing keyword demand, which is often successfully accomplished with a good keyword tool, and a good brain. Social conversation demand is much more subjective, and can be assessed in a single network, or a variety of networks. The main methods used are the same, though: good tools, and good brains, with a heavy emphasis on the latter. Your company’s answer to assessing conversational demand might exist on either Twitter, Facebook, forums, blogs, comments on blogs, answer sites or any combination of those.

But again, keep in mind that once you have assessed the demand that exists in conversation, you have to work toward meeting it with your own content and conversation, or else the exercise is moot.

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In The Long Run, Balance Wins The Race

This post first appeared on MediaPost Search Insider on September 29, 2010.

One of the main issues I encounter in search is how to balance approaches with other areas of the online marketing swarm, namely content development, public relations, social media and networks, and Web development. Each has its own critical importance to natural search performance, and depending on who is in charge, search can either enhance each respective discipline, or it could also come at the expense of that discipline. The best option is to balance all considerations in such a way that everyone wins. And the good news is that it can be done.

It’s worth stepping back and assessing whether or not SEO strategy is complementing the overall strategy, or running over it. A sustainable search program shouldn’t have to come at the expense of any other discipline to provide incredible benefits to businesses and marketers, and the ideal output is an experience that considers the findability of content across all disciplines, in addition to meeting the search demands of those who are trying to find something.

But overzealousness on any side can create a mess. Slopping in SEO purely for search gain sucks, particularly when it comes at the expense of forming intelligible copy, usable aesthetics, and talking like a real person (not a robot). In the same way, developing a site purely in Flash, conducting public relations efforts without understanding digital media or search strategies, and talking metaphorically all the time can create the same kind of disconnect with your audience.

Here are some considerations that have a direct impact on findability for search marketers to use when working with other disciplines:

Don’t sell out your credibility for links or publicity. It can be easy to want to get aggressive with linking. Sure, you could tell the biggest lie in the world and get an incredible amount of links, but at some point you have to determine if that’s the kind of attention you want, because that is how your brand will be known in both search and social media.

Balance visual elements and rich apps with textual depth. Search and RIAs don’t have to mix like oil and water. The best answer for creative, development, and search teams involved in this process (or dilemma, if you prefer), is how to balance it all together, considering usability for direct site users, and those coming from search engines.

Don’t always trade off keyword popularity for opportunities to directly engage with your audience. I have discussions all the time about content strategy, and whether or not a highly searched keyword must always have to be in the title of the article or theme. No, it does not. Certainly it’s a good thing to include most of the time, but if you are producing a high volume of content on a regular basis, then it is OK to simply create an engaging headline. Engagement is the new SEO, and by staying in tune with your audience, the benefits of social signals on search relevancy and authority often follow.

Don’t come off as impersonal or spammy to humans, in order to appeal to robots. This may be the most common sin of SEO folk, who often go overboard in areas like linking, architecture, copywriting, social conversations and social network visibility, so it seems as if they’re only talking to search engines, not people. Again, engaging human beings with search signals can work – but turning those humans off with a pure SEO play can backfire in the long-term.

Respect “best practices” and common sense when engaging in social media. There is no question that social signals are playing a greater role in how content is crawled, indexed, and retrieved. I regularly engage in social media as a search tactic, but I do so with strategies of social engagement taking the lead, created and executed by the best social strategists I know. If you don’t address people in a sincere and meaningful way in social, then it does no good for a long-term sustainable strategy.

Here are some considerations for marketers on using search to get more from what you are already doing in public relations, Web development, creative, social media, and other areas.:

Don’t ignore your search consultants. A consultant with a balanced view of search can extend the opportunities for what you are currently doing in many other areas of digital marketing. In turn, what you are doing could help lift other efforts as well, including search.

Remember that engagement translates to findability at a very core level. In addition to engaging with your target audience at the content and conversation level, keep in mind that there is an opportunity to engage with your core target in areas other than where you keep your core assets. Searchers may be seeking the content you already have, but they can only find it if core search optimization principle are used.

In the long run, a careful balance wins the race.

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Cover and Interview for Search Marketing Standard Spring 2012 Print and digital editions

I’m very pleased to have been interviewed and featured in the current issue of Search Marketing Standard print and digital editions. The issue is available to subscribers only, though you can pick up a print copy for free at major interactive media conferences over the next couple of months (SES NYC should have a few on hand). Thanks again to the entire staff at Search Marketing Standard.

Rob Garner Search Marketing Standard Spring 2012 - Search, Social, and Real-Time Marketing

My recent guest lecture at NYU

In late June I had the pleasure of presenting a guest lecture on current trends in search and social to a graduate marketing class at NYU.  A link to the full presentation is provided below via Slideshare.