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Are you helping or selling?

If you read my monthly newsletter the other day, you understand that I think that the Web is ushering in a new way of communicating with customers. Instead of the breathless hype of the old days designed to make one sale, we need to solve a customer’s problem to create one relationship. If we truly help people, you can be sure that few of them will remember to buy from us. Unfortunately, more and more of our target markets are turned off by the old sales pitches and will look for true help elsewhere. If you grew up with old-style marketing, you might not agree with me, but let me explain.


A few weeks ago, the owner of a small business approached me—let’s call him Les Daring. He’d seen one of my appearances and really likes the idea that you can put content on the Web that captures customers early in the sales cycle, even before they know what kind of product they want to buy. In my books, I’ve called this content “Learn” content, because that is what the customer is doing. (For more details on this, take a look at my article on Search Engine Land called “Are Your Customers Looking for a Problem?“)
Les wasn’t ready for totally helpful content. He wanted to write his content more like a traditional direct mail letter. He farmed the job out to his regular direct marketing agency and came back to me a few weeks later with the result. It read like a—you guessed it—direct mail letter.
I told him that this isn’t really the kind of content I have in mind. I am talking about content that looks what a newspaper or magazine would print as editorial content, not advertising. Now, sure, when you write your page about the three ways that you can solve the problem, it’s fine that the third way is the one you sell. And it’s perfectly OK for you to link from that third item to a more sales-y page on your site, but that’s as hard a sell as you should do.
Why? Don’t direct mail letters work? Well, sure they do. And if that’s the way you want to market on the Web, you have every right to do it. Moreover, if you can show that it works better than what I am suggesting, even better.
But I think the old direct mail tactics don’t work as well. I’ve seen over and over again how a more plainspoken, factual approach works better. Let’s look at a two different companies to show what I mean. Before we start, I want you to know that I don’t know the folks at these companies nor have I ever bought their products, but I am familiar with their work. Each are in the broad business of search engine marketing, so I have researched them for my books and my other writing.
The first is SEO Elite Software, which sells a well-respected search optimization tool set. If you look at their marketing materials, they resemble nothing so much as a direct mail letter on the Web. Lots of exclamation points and large fonts and a long, persuasive story. Again, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. I am sure it is somewhat effective.
Contrast their approach with Aaron Wall’s. Aaron is also very well-respected—he sells an e-book called “SEO Book” that is a direct competitor to my first book. And I am told it’s very good. But look how Aaron does his marketing—it’s much more helpful than sales-y. The cornerstone of Aaron’s marketing is his extremely helpful blog, which has huge readership, some of whom decide to buy his book.
Now I am have no way of knowing whether Aaron sells more than SEO Elite. But I believe that SEO Elite’s sales are transactions—someone buys that product because they think it was good. Only buyers of that product would think to buy another product by SEO Elite. They have little relationship with their customers.
Aaron, on the other hand, has a strong relationship with his customers. Not only do they buy his book, but they might even get some consulting from him. If he comes out with more things to buy, they’d be interested in that also—even those that have bought nothing but only read his blog would be interested. I believe that the difference is the way that Aaron does his marketing. Aaron understands the difference between helping and selling.
Eventually Les Daring did too. He decided to write the content himself, rather than having his agency do it. He just created a few pages that answered questions he gets all the time. And he put contact forms on the page. And suddenly he started getting people contacting him. Not in droves, but a nice trickle of potential customers he wouldn’t have otherwise gotten, all for the total cost of a few hours of writing. Les now understands the difference between helping and selling, too.
Do you? Do you purposely set out to solve your customers’ problems? Do you provide a free tool or helpful information that attract a following? Information that will be passed on by others? If not, your old-style marketing message is probably becoming more and more invisible, as people ignore it to spend their time with companies that help them. Those are the companies that develop relationships, not just make transactions.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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