Failure to launch: why most SEOs aren’t marketers (yet)

Created: Joel Klettke
Categories: SEO career, SEO community

With such a provocative headline, you're probably skeptical and wondering if you're about to be subjected to some tacky controversial link bait disguised as a misinformed hate-on for SEO.


If that's your assumption, I want to prove you wrong.

This post is not intended to be a heavy-handed criticism of SEO as a practice, nor is it intended to say that all SEOs must become marketers, or that *deep breath* "SEO is dead" *enormous sigh*.

Instead, I hope to highlight why those SEOs and agencies who're trying  to pivot into more of a marketer's role are failing to do so.

You can pin point the seismic shift to April 24, 2012…

…also known as the day Google unleashed Penguin and the SEO industry lost its collective mind.

When link schemes came under fire, the processes and systems many SEOs had relied on for success in secret for years were cut out from under them.

That's REALLY important, because it underpins a critical fact we conveniently ignore: The widespread exodus among SEO circles towards marketing started because of the need to find a new way to earn links.

What happened next has been the subject of roughly a zillion blog posts:

SEO lost its identity.

Some argue that "SEO" now encompasses PR, content marketing, social media, technical elements and coding, outreach and branding. Basically, they want to painfully cram the entire field of marketing into three small letters because all of those activities impact search results.

Posts like "What Are SEOs Even Good at Anymore" underpin the pressure SEOs are being put under to evolve.

Others insist that SEO is still as relevant as ever; that the core tenants of SEO (usually technical in nature) remain unchanged. These folks bristle at the label of "inbound marketing",  roll their eyes at content marketing, loathe the sudden condemnation of "link building" as wholly toxic and cringe at everyone who insists SEOs now need to become marketers.

Good news: No matter which opinion you hold – you're right!

SEO isn't a single task or job. SEO can be both an involved technical process and a consideration while undertaking other marketing efforts.

There are no steady lines drawn. An "SEO" can be solely involved in the technical elements of the website and the link building process, or can choose to start embracing the other tasks that have an impact on positioning – "marketing".

But if we're brutally honest, that transition is happening slowly and poorly.

And yet every conference, every influencer, every blog post written by those same companies failing at their own game – they ALL encourage SEOs to act like marketers.

So here's why the industry is failing at that, and how to fix it:

1. Their mentality hasn't changed

A lot of SEOs would very much like to be marketers, so long as it doesn't require them to change.

For years, SEO was fast, cheap, scalable and easy to automate. But while some of those principals are still valid (automation is still a huge win) that attitude has become hugely toxic because that's just not the way real marketing works.

"Content Marketing" for most SEO agencies has been "Mass Guest Posting" (until Matt Cutts got pissed).

"Content Strategy" has been boiled down to "Write an editorial calendar full of neat-sounding ideas".

"Branding" has turned into "Authority Building", which becomes a quest for viral hits that will bring in loads of links and traffic (regardless of brand tone, voice and guidelines).

"Social media" becomes asking bunch of benign questions to a non-audience (or bought followers), running contests with fleeting engagement and chirping out the company’s own content as though just sharing something equates to a marketing win.

And because SEOs have long sold "link building packages" or been able to influence rankings for at the agonizingly low cost of $200 a month, they outsource work to content puppy mills where inexperienced overseas workers churn out "me too" content that is barely in English – the complete opposite of what a successful brand would do – and expect the same results.

But marketing requires a more involved process.

SEOs aiming to become marketers must now take more interest in creating and understanding personas – and then actually using those personas to define courses of action.

They must embrace more nuanced processes for content ideation and evolve away from guesswork and copycatting.

They need to learn how to work within the constraints of a brand – and how to define those constraints based not only on data, but creativity as well.

They must learn to view a piece's potential for not just links and traffic, but for its ability to influence the perception of a business in the minds of a potential buyer.

They must learn how to track, measure and influence metrics beyond rankings and traffic, and learn how to communicate success in those areas to clients.

But most of all, SEOs aspiring to be marketers must confront the fact that they cannot sell their services the same way or on the same premises of success, because metrics like rankings and traffic cannot live in isolation from metrics like leads, sales, sentiment, loyalty or market share.

2. Public biases of "SEO" inhibits change

Go ask ten people outside of digital marketing circles what they think SEO is, and I can all but guarantee nearly 100% of them will mention rankings, keywords and Google. I would be shocked to learn if a single one of them mentioned content marketing, outreach or social.

Part of the reason SEOs fail to embrace marketing is because the public still approaches SEO with a heavy-handed bias that handcuffs them from the get go: "This is the service that will make me number one in Google".

When you sell "SEO", a client's natural reflex is to measure your success based on rankings and traffic. There is a disconnect in the mind of the public between rankings and brand building; why should the same company handle both?

In other words, out in that great big world, the public doesn't see SEO as marketing yet – nor do they think an "SEO" ought to be ideating their content or telling them who to reach out to.

If you want to be able to do marketing work, I think it unwise to sell under the moniker of SEO, which comes with public biases and limitations that hamper ability to earn buy-in, be effective and abandon old-school practices.

Yes, you can spend time educating the client – but wouldn’t it be better to adopt a moniker less likely to cause confusion from the beginning?

3. They have no process

You know what the process changes for most were when they decided to embrace marketing activities? They added new services to their navigation bar. Ouch.

If SEOs want to embrace marketing, they need to create (and document) processes for consistent execution – not just haphazardly outsource content production whenever a lead comes in, or follow a half-baked outline you read on someone else's blog.

Your process needs to be tailored for your business.

The good news is that SEOs are no strangers to process. Historically, SEO firms have established processes for things like technical audits, tracking their link building and sending out monthly reports. But to do marketing, you need more.

Do you have established, documented and shared processes for:

  • Brand discovery  (Briefs, style guides, competitive research)
  • Persona development (Research, pull sheets)
  • Content ideation & planning (Including an understanding of customer buying cycles)
  • Content creation
  • Content promotion & outreach (Paid, earned and owned media plans)
  • Monitoring & measurement
  • Reporting

If you answered "No", now is the time to define and formalize how you go about doing that work.

If you answered "Yes": Have you outlined the workflow for each of these stages and assigned the tasks to specific individuals who will own them, or are you thrusting all of this work into some kind of black box where the person in charge of the campaign executes one or many of these things on a whim and as they have time?

Your process must prescribe accountability; you should be able to articulate and share it, revisit it and rework it, assign tools to every stage and provide documentation for every phase.

4. Their teams haven't changed

There are very, very few "Omnimarketers" I've ever met – people who can do everything from code in Python to come up with a compelling creative idea.

When SEO firms started to make the move toward more marketing-orientated services, the thing that was most confusing was the utter lack of change in how their teams were composed.

Suddenly, content ideation, creation and promotion were thrust upon the same people who had months earlier been doing backlink analysis and competitor audits.

Sometimes, those people are up to the task; we like to believe SEOs are "T-Shaped Marketers".

But here's an uncomfortable fact:  Outreach requires a different skill set than technical audits,  building a community is not the same as building links and creating compelling marketing is different than writing blog posts about Hummingbird really well.

If you want to be able to execute on those processes I outlined above, you need the right people for the job, - with the right amount of time to that specific step of the process - and those people may not be found within your existing staff.

Does your team need an outreach specialist, or an editor? Do you need to enlist some full-time creatives? It all depends on the services you want to be able to provide, but chances are good you’re going to need to expand your talent pool.

I don't just think it's unreasonable to expect that someone be great at both auditing a website and coming up with great content ideas – I think trying to force this ability is holding SEOs back. Even within traditional agencies, you have more specialized roles. If you want to do marketing well, you can't ask just one person to carry the world on their shoulders.

The Future is Bright

This has all felt a little pessimistic and harsh – but the truth is that some agencies are making this transition very well.

This is the growing pains stage; a strange sort of capabilities arms-race where traditional agencies try to build out their digital competence and digital agencies try to abandon their bad habits and put the "marketing" back into online marketing.

Change is slow. But it's happening.

I'm being contacted by more and more businesses who see the value in a capable content creator – not just someone who can writer words or belch out blog posts they can cram links into.

I am watching as smart firms learn how to accommodate a larger suite of services – a far cry from the "SEO Packages" of yesteryear.

I'm seeing agencies start to hire full-time creatives, bring on editors and cross-train their link builders on soft skills and human connections.

Maybe best of all, SEOs are rediscovering, much to their amazement, that it's all about the customer – and always has been.

These are all good things. The opportunity to change is there, and lord knows there's no shortage of advice.

But as they say, it's all about the execution.

Author: Joel Klettke
is a copywriter with a history in digital marketing. He runs Business Casual Copywriting, working with businesses and agencies who are more concerned about creating awesome things than they are about word counts. Follow Joel on Twitter at @JoelKlettke.