Beyond SEO: How to Reframe the Local Marketing Conversation

David: Mike, great to talk with you again. I’m excited to be back on the Local U circuit with you shortly and look forward to seeing you in Denver in September, if not sooner.

Mike: Looking forward to that, as it has been too long for sure. So what say we pick up where we left off last time and try to look at frameworks for Local SEO that might provide a way for agencies to both offer real tangible benefits and that businesses could understand?

David: Are you suggesting we have “unresolved issues?”

Mike: You and I will always have “unresolved issues,” as we are two humans trying to understand reality. But I don’t think any less of you when I think you are wrong. 🙂

David: <eye roll> Moving along.

Typically, if you ask small businesses, “What’s the #1 thing you want from your marketing?” most will answer, “more leads.”

Mike: At least in my consulting and the leads that I still see from time to time, the need expressed to me is, “How do I rank higher” or “hHw do I dominate local search”? And in fact not “how do I get more leads.”

David: Fine, we can start from that reference point, too. The follow-up question I would ask is, “OK, let’s say I can get you a #1 ranking for every keyword you can possibly think of. What are those prospective leads going to see when you rank?”

And, back to our conversation from last time, in 2019 the SERP those leads see is one of the most tangible representations of your brand. It is the sum total of all the information Google can collect and curate about your business from all corners of your customer base, both online and offline.

Mike: That is absolutely true, but the language I “see” in the marketplace is based on the language of SEO from the early ’00s that makes it very hard to have a meaningful conversation with many of these businesses. To some extent this outdated language defines both their reality as well as services that agencies offer. It often leads down this path of least resistance of “Let’s do link building” or “Let’s get more reviews.”

David: I can empathize with the agency not wanting to argue with a customer who already knows what they want, but at some point we as marketers need to help small businesses diagnose their situation as opposed to taking that path of least resistance.

It may be a longer or more difficult sale, but surely the service delivered will be more effective and client satisfaction will be much higher, if and when those clients have bought into this longer-term view.

That’s not to say that all agencies ought to lead with brand building, which I think is one of the points where you and I differed in our last conversation, but there is a minimum brand threshold (i.e. “your new homepage”) that every business should consider before it spends a nickel on advertising or more expensive SEO tactics.

A guy may walk into a sports medicine clinic and say, “I need a new knee,” but the responsible orthopedist should probably run a few tests and highlight some alternatives before immediately scheduling a multi-thousand-dollar surgery.

Mike: Well if you are my age and you walk into an orthopedist and say “my knees hurt” (which I have done), their response has been: “We will replace your knee” because that is what they think I want and is profitable for them. It speaks to a similar problem in Local SEO.

David: OK fine, the orthopedist was a bad example. And probably a major contributing factor to our ridiculous health insurance system.

Mike: Actually not such a bad example at all. Even the names we assign ourselves — “Local Search Engine Optimizer” — speak to the missing language to communicate a solid local marketing path.

I am looking for a language framework that helps business understand that the idea of ranking only makes sense in the context of not just getting more customers but also keeping them. While businesses might want a floodgate of leads, there are many things that they could be doing that would be cost-effective and productive.

We have talked in the past about the marketing funnel really being a “pretzel,” not a funnel, and that graphic gets to the core of where I think local marketing needs to go.

David: The reality is that it’s hard (and/or expensive) to just open the floodgates and have customers start pouring in. All businesses are going to start with a relative trickle of customers, and they need to focus first on converting the customers who already know them before spending gobs of money on ads or link building or even anything beyond factual content.

Basically, business need to take care of the stuff Google is asking for in Google My Business; after all, they certainly know what the average searcher cares about most.

I think there’s a framework that can be developed where it’s more of a progression based on the current state of a business’ brand. It’s perhaps a bit less fine-grained or prescriptive than my Local Marketing Stack.

That logic underlies our relatively new ThriveHive guided marketing service, though I don’t pretend that we have nailed the messaging around it.

Mike: This speaks to why I suggested the phrase “brand building” and its “pillars” as the core of that language effort, but I tend to agree with you that while the pillars I noted do provide some framework for both the business and agency to focus on, it might be hard to sell the idea as opposed to “Rank #1.”

David: Your pillars provide some guidance for how to think about your brand, but they’re perhaps a bid too broad — and more importantly non-sequential — in terms of what to focus on first.

I realize the pretzel by definition is non-sequential, but when you’re building a service-offering model, you have to start somewhere and build to something.

So let me turn the question to you. From your list below, where would you start?

  • Consumers: Instagrammable stories, reviews, loyalty
  • Community: Supporting your local community groups directly or nationally through a product like ZipSprout
  • Business: Joining and participating in organizations that allow for networking and linking offline and on in your local market that you can afford. Perhaps the BBB or the Chamber of—if not, then something more appropriate for your size.
  • Media: Keeping an eye out for stories from any or all of the above that are worth pitching and sharing with local bloggers, news media, and TV stations in your market

Mike: Well, obviously step one is to focus on the consumers and their digital interaction with you, which comes down to Google, their website, and their social site of choice. The wording you use on your ThriveHive marketing material doesn’t mention SEO but rather mentions Local Marketing, which is probably more approachable than “Branding” and does move away from  the historical baggage of “SEO” and “Local SEO” monikers. That, to some extent, makes my point. It doesn’t encumber you with specific tactics that can force an agency and/or the business to take their eye off the real ball — more customers and long term business success.

David: Honestly, I didn’t have anything to do with that particular page, but I’m happy that multiple ThriveHive teams have internalized this kind of thinking.

We’re certainly still targeting “SEO” and “ranking” focused terms with our organic content since that’s what our customers are searching for. But we are 100% trying to move the conversation beyond “SEO” and into this more strategic position.

The acronym “SEO” could still be valid, but its meaning needs to change to fit the kind of model you and I are talking about. Setting aside the fact that “SE” is really “G” these days, you could make the argument that “Optimization” does not have to mean “better rankings,” or at least shouldn’t be laser-focused on better rankings out of the gate.

Mike: The word “optimization” perhaps outside of the context of SEO is probably worth salvaging IF we can position it as a first step of a long term marketing and branding process. And have it apply to the basic building blocks of business marketing with things like great images, a good logo etc that is essential for both their website AND Google My Business.

David: “Optimization” does seem worth saving. Our customer Michael Tomaiolo actually reinforces this positioning with his comment about the value of our service being to help him “optimize my presence on Google.”

In the end, it may be easier to just come up with a new acronym, though I’m not about to propose it. After 20 years, small businesses are finally starting to understand what “SEO” means and are eager to buy it (even if starting from a misguided point).

Not sure I have the patience to wait another 20.

Mike: I have been at it for about 20 years (actually 19), and I am ready for new language that describes digital marketing in terms that help businesses build sustainable marketing practices that create long-term customer relationships.

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After more than a decade in local search, David Mihm now serves as VP of Product Strategy at ThriveHive, leading the direction of the company’s search-related product offerings. He’s also the Founder & CEO of Tidings, an email newsletter platform for small businesses that leverages their everyday social media activity, and his own weekly newsletters, Minutive and the Agency Insider.  He’s the former founder of GetListed.org, Director of Local Strategy at Moz, and along with Mike, he’s a co-founder of Local University.

Mike Blumenthal is a co-founder of GatherUp, a feedback and reputation platform, and LocalU, which provides small business and agency training in sustainable local search marketing. His motto: All Local All the Time. He writes at his blog and does a twice-a-week podcast about Local marketing. 

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Got an idea for what you want Mike and David to discuss next time? Send it to either davidmihm@gmail.com or mike@gatherup.com, or just leave a comment below and we’ll put it in the hopper!

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