Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Essential Messaging Component Most Ecommerce Sites Miss and Why It’s Deterring Your Customers from Purchasing

In today’s Quick Win Clinic, Flint McGlaughlin looks at the home and product pages for Worthington Direct, an online furniture store for businesses and schools. It is obvious that everything on this site is designed to help visitors find the product they are looking for and to convince them that the product is right for them. But there are many online furniture stores. Why should visitors choose this company over others? This retailer fails to answer that crucial question.

The designers of this website made a mistake the McGlaughlin believes is the number one flaw most ecommerce stores make today. If you offer the right product, but you neglect to show that you are also the right company, then you have lost a sale.

Your copy on this page needs to help me draw a sense of certainty inside that not only is this the right product but you are the right company. 

— Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director and CEO, MECLABS Institute

Watch the video to get further insights into creating webpages that produce maximum results.


The Essential Messaging Component Most Ecommerce Sites Miss and Why It’s Deterring Your Customers from Purchasing was originally posted by Video And Blog Marketing

Exploring SERPED.net’s Keyword Research Tool

Exploring SERPED.net’s Keyword Research Tool

A few months back, we did a review for SERPED.net, which became a part of our vast SEO toolbox due to its versatility. Some of the many tools that SERPED.net offers include Domain Finding and Research, Site Management, Rank, Tracking, Client Acquisition, and Keyword Research. With this amount of tools at your disposal, SERPED.net truly is one of the best SEO tools around.

One of the most used tools in our toolbox are keywords research tools, which helps us identify the best keywords that would help our clients rank higher in search results pages. This is a task that requires a good amount of time, as there are so many keywords to analyze and evaluate before picking the one that would not only fit your client’s products and services, but also be competitive in search rankings.

Great keyword research is the difference between getting high or low rankings, which is why you need the best tools to help you. With that in mind, let us explore SERPED.net’s keyword research tool.

Ultimate Research and Keyword Analyzer

Upon logging in, go to the “Tools” section, and click “Ultimate Research” which is under “Keyword Research”.

SERPED Tools Bar

Once you have accessed Ultimate Research, the next step is to enter a keyword (you also have the option to input multiple keywords), choose a country where you would like to get your data from, and the language of the keyword.

SERPED Ultimate Research

There is also the advanced options, which allows you to narrow down the data even further by inputting which state or city would you like to get your data from. You can also pick between broad and exact keyword searches as well.

SERPED Ultimate Research 2

After typing a sample keyword (SEO Philippines), and narrowing down the search data to only the Philippines, I immediately received some quick and useful data about the keyword I typed. I also got related keywords and their corresponding data as well, as keywords tend to have a good number of equally competitive alternatives that you can consider using.

SERPED Ultimate Research 3

There are a variety of options that I can do with the data that I currently have. First, I can filter down the keywords even further to get data from only select keywords. Second, I can export the data into different file formats, including, .txt, .pdf, and .csv. Third, I can open the Keyword Analyzer, and see more data, such as the SERPED rank and Alexa rank, The Moz page and domain authority, the number of links and referral domains, and the CitationFlow and TrustFlow.

SERPED Ultimate Research 4

If you want to use the Keyword Analyzer right away, you can do so as well. Simply type the keyword, enter the database, and the URL of the website. This will be able to help you monitor the performance of your competitors, and see how you measure up.

SERPED Keyword Analyzer

What Ranks Where

Now that we are done with the Ultimate Research tab, let us now proceed to the What Ranks Where section. This section allows us to see what are the keywords that are ranking within a certain website. Fill in the site name and URL, and select a search type. You can view as  much as 500 results in a single URL, and you can check for the position and traffic %

SERPED What Ranks Where

Upon entering all of the details, SERPED would then look for every keyword present within the site. You can see important details such as keyword position, monthly search volume, cost per click, traffic value and cost, and number of results. This gives you an instant look on how well your keywords are performing on your site, and see if they are ranking well on search results pages.

SERPED What Ranks Where 2

Long-Tail Keywords

The last feature that we will discuss would be about long-tail keywords. Like the Ultimate Research tool, all you have to do is to input your keywords, and select your database. For this example, I typed “SEO Company Philippines”.

SERPED Long Tail Keywords

Upon entering my keyword, I get a list of keywords that I can use, along with relevant data and statistics such as cost per click, and traffic value. You also have the option to look for relevant domains that you can use on a website, and have Google give you further analysis on your keywords.

SERPED Long Tail Keywords 2

Key Takeaway

SERPED.net’s Keyword Research tools are some of the most effective and efficient tools available. Coming in a package that includes a wide variety of different SEO tools, this is a versatile set of tools that will really work well with your SEO team.

If you have questions and inquiries about SEO Tools or SEO strategies, leave a comment below and let’s talk.


Exploring SERPED.net’s Keyword Research Tool was originally posted by Video And Blog Marketing

A Simple Guide for the Busy Marketer: Using data from online marketing and web analytics tools

How does Adobe define bounce rate? What’s the difference between exit and bounce rate? And how can these numbers be meaningfully used to better serve customers and ultimately improve results?

Let’s take a closer look at some of the numbers you see in your digital marketing analytics platform to help answer this question.

We’ll focus on terminology used by Adobe Analytics and Google Analytics since they are the two most popular analytics platforms. For example, 74% of the Internet Retailer Top 500 use Google Analytics, 41% use Adobe Analytics and only 16% use others (IBM Digital Analytics, WebTrends, etc.).

Also, since many organizations use multiple platforms (as you can see the above numbers), it’s helpful to understand when different platforms use different terminology to mean essentially the same thing.

Bounce Rate

What it is: Google Analytics defines bounce rate as “The percentage of single-page sessions in which there was no interaction with the page.” Adobe Analytics has a similar definition. It’s important to note that exit rate includes bounces, but it also includes instances when a visitor did interact with something (e.g., a previous page) and this was simply the last page they viewed on your site.

How to use it: This one strikes fear into the heart of many marketers. “People are just bouncing off my site? Simply bouncing? And it’s not a Tigger type of friendly bounce.”

However, many marketers should ease their anxiety and focus elsewhere. Bounce Rate is usually most helpful for a business that sells traffic, like a publisher that sells ads on its site. In that case, the goal of most pages (which tend to be content, like an article or blog post) is to get people to view more pages and thereby generate more ad revenue.

But if you’re selling a product or service, your focus shouldn’t be getting visitors to simply view another page. It should be to walk them through a thought sequence to help them make the best purchase decision. Essentially, a funnel.

A word of caution: “For funnel optimization, I tend to focus more on exit rates and clickthrough rates to other steps in the funnel,” said Rebecca Strally, Associate Director, Strategy Development, MECLABS Institute.

“It’s not that bounces aren’t salvageable, it’s that source/medium reporting has gotten spottier over the years so it’s difficult to assign a bounce to a specific off-site source and therefore we are hard-pressed to determine what motivation may be lacking on the page. I’ve seen better long-term results when we just focus on moving more people deeper into the funnel rather than worrying about how to reduce bounces specifically,” she said.

Exit Rate and Exits

What it is: The number of a particular webpage’s views that were last in the session. Google Analytics provides an exit rate and shows a percentage, Adobe Analytics shows exits and provides a total number. As mentioned above, exit rate includes bounces, but it also includes instances when a visitor did interact with something (e.g., a previous page) and this was simply the last page they viewed on your site.

Also, keep in mind how the denominators are different between exit rate and bounce rate. Since bounce rate essentially mentions a one-page session, the bounce rate is only measuring against entries to that page. Exit rate includes both people who entered the site on the webpage you’re looking at metrics for, but also anyone who viewed the webpage and entered from a different page.

How to use it: It can help you understand the biggest leaks in your funnel. This may be the place in the buyer’s journey that is most ripe for conversion optimization work to improve your overall results. Why are people leaving before purchasing or becoming a lead? And what information can you provide to encourage more of them to continue the journey through your funnel?

A word of caution: People will naturally leave at certain stages of your funnel more frequently than others, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that step of the funnel is underperforming. For example, if the first step of your purchase funnel asks people to select the color so they can see what their future couch will look like in that color, and the second step asks for a credit card and purchase, people are far more likely to exit on the credit card step even if you’re executing it quite well due to the nature of the ask.

Visits, Sessions and Unique Pageviews

What it is: The number of visits within the time of your report. Adobe Analytics refers to this as “visits,” and Google Analytics refers to this as “sessions” (for multiple pages in a single visit) and “unique pageviews” (for an individual page, even over multiple sessions).

How to use it: This can help you see how many times people are coming to your website. For many products and services, a customer may have to visit your website and get information about your company over time (while building trust) before making a purchase.

“In order to tell how many times people are coming to the site you need to do a calculation — visits per visitor will tell you this,” advised Taylor Bartlinksi, Senior Manager, Data Analytics, MECLABS Institute. “A visit per visitor value of 2 means that on average, users come to your site twice in the date range you have set. You can also compare visits per visitor on a page basis to see if users are returning to any particular page more often than others.”

But a word of caution: This is an engagement metric. While it can be an important step in the funnel to lead to an ultimate conversion, it likely isn’t your end goal. So you may want to focus less on getting an increased number of visits and focus more on getting visits from your ideal customer. More visits from your ideal customer are what will ultimately lead to more sales and conversion.

Page Views

What it is: The number of times a page is … wait for it … viewed. Unlike with unique pageviews or visits, this metric can include multiple views from the same person, even if they simply hit refresh. While Google Analytics and Adobe Analytics refer to this by the same name, they differ slightly on the grammar: Adobe calls it page views and Google calls it pageviews.

How to use it: It could give you a sense of how popular certain pages are on your website. If you engage in conversion optimization on the most popular pages, you can increase your chances of getting more leads and more sales.

But a word of caution: As mentioned above, people hit refresh on webpages. They go back to a page multiple times just because they’re distracted by something else. This measurement could be showing not just popularity, but simply distracted browsing and user habits.

Clickthrough Rates

What it is: Essentially, clicking on a link. This could be clicking on a homepage link to get deeper into a site, for example. Or clicking on a specific product on a product gridwall. But it can also be clicks from offsite to the website, like clicks from an online advertisement or an email. This is shown in terms of total number of clicks as well as clickthrough rate (CTR) percentage.

How to use it: This metric can help you track the effectiveness of not only parts of your website but also elements of your channel at driving prospects to the next step of the funnel.

When to de-emphasize it: If you’re paying for traffic (for example, a pay-per-click ad), your goal shouldn’t be to get the highest clickthrough rate on that particular advertisement. The goal should be to get the most clicks from customers who ultimately get through your funnel and make a purchase or take some other ultimate conversion action.

Unique Visitors and Users

What it is: The number of unduplicated visitors to your website within the time of your report. Adobe Analytics uses the term “unique visitors,” and Google Analytics uses the term “users.” One important caveat, different platforms calculate this metric in a different way (more on that below).

How to use it: This metric helps you determine how many actual people you’re reaching with your website. It can ultimately help you determine how many people take the desired action you want them to take, and help you optimize that number by running A/B and multivariate testing.

A simple word of caution: This metric may not be perfectly tracking how many people visit your website. This is probably the most difficult metric to measure of any listed in this article since customers use multiple devices and some use private browsing modes or otherwise hinder cookies so analytics tools could double- (or triple-) count some of your visitors. It’s also important to understand how unique visitors and users are counted if you’re testing on your website.

Because of this, Adobe and Google might count unique visitors and users differently. For example, if a visitor was logged in to their Gmail account and visited the same website using a desktop device and a mobile device, Google may be able to track those visits as being from the same visitor where Adobe wouldn’t. And there are likely scenarios where Adobe would be able to tell a visitor is the same on multiple devices where perhaps Google could not.

A more complex word of caution: If you really want to get into the weeds, let’s address this question — how do unique visitors differ between Google Analytics, Google Content Experiments, Adobe Analytics and Adobe Target?

Keep in mind, a unique visitor is only unique in reference to a certain timeframe. So, the way you pull data from your testing platform (like Adobe Target or Google Content Experiments) when running a test may show a different number than your analytics platform because it may be accounting for a different timeframe.

To explain this better, Rebecca Strally provided the following scenario:

  • I ran a test for the entire month of May (31 days)
  • Visitor A came to my site once in May
  • Visitor B came to my site three times on three different days in May
  • Visitor C came to my site two times in a single day in May

All of these platforms define unique visitors in the same way, so if we were to pull a monthly report from each platform, we would have three unique visitors.

Where the discrepancy comes in is when you begin pulling daily data.

If you are pulling daily data from either Adobe Analytics or Google Analytics to cross-reference to your results from Adobe Target or Google Content Experiments you will get different numbers. This is because Adobe Target and Google Content Experiments will not pull daily data; they will pull aggregate data for the entire test period.

Let’s look back at the scenario. If we pulled daily data from Adobe Analytics or Google Analytics, we would get five unique visitors (Visitor A = 1, Visitor B = 3, Visitor C = 1), but Adobe Target and Content Experiments would only be showing three unique visitors (Visitor A = 1, Visitor B = 1, Visitor C=1), because they are looking at the entire month of May.

For your tests, you should pull data aggregately so you don’t deflate the conversion rate with more unique visitors than really were in the test.

How This Data Can Be Used to Better Serve Customers and Improve Results

Keep in mind, there is one flaw with each metric we’ve discussed. It tells you about the past, not the future. That’s why the testing scenario in the previous section is so important.

You can, of course, use these numbers to better understand customers and start predicting their future actions and, more importantly, what changes you can make to affect those future actions.

You would create a hypothesis. And run an online test.

For example, if your goal for an SEO landing page is to click through to other pages with deeper info on the topic, and you run tests to improve the headlines for those topics and reduce bounce rate, those numbers and that test helped you better serve customers and improve results.

Or, if you have a five-step process to guide people through the process of choosing a nursing home, you run a test to reduce the friction necessary to move from step three to step four, and in so doing, reduce the exit rate; that is another example of using these metrics to better serve customers and improve results

From each online test, you learn more about your customers. You turn simple numbers in a spreadsheet into a Technicolor view of your customers to help serve them better, and in so doing, improve your business results.

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A Simple Guide for the Busy Marketer: Using data from online marketing and web analytics tools was originally posted by Video And Blog Marketing

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Working from the Office - the New Working from Home

One perk companies of any size can offer their employees is flexibility around working from home or flexible work schedules. While there can be disadvantages of offering flexible work schedules, almost everyone agrees the pros outweigh the cons.

But why not also invest in your office environment as an employee benefit? While it can be dreamy to sit in your PJs and have your cat in your lap (or on your laptop) all afternoon, working from home is often as distracting as it is convenient. If your employees feel more productive and inspired in your office environment, you’ll get more face time with your team, even if they have the option to work from home.

Here are four Distilled office tips to incentivize your employees to brave the commute into the office (and forego the oh-so-tempting desire to stay in PJs all day).

Intentional, intelligent office design

Whether you prefer the open office layout or a more traditional cubicle look, design your office with a variety of areas to suit different kinds of work and different kinds of work styles. Give individuals the freedom to choose the work environment specific to their mood, task, or creativity preference.

At Distilled, this includes flexible sit-stand desks (or areas of standing desks), cafe-style areas, couches and dens, communal hubs and meeting rooms for group work, and small spaces where people can put their heads down and concentrate. Some companies prefer having no designated desks, but we’ve kept to individual desks so that people express themselves with photos, tchotchke, and supplies, as well as providing storage for personal belongings.

Additionally, in an ever more computer-centric economy, design your workspace in a way that motivates movement. Even something as simple as having the printer or snacks farther away from desk areas can decrease the amount of sitting for long periods of time, which is by far the healthiest option for your employees.

Plan tangible office events that support company culture

Is someone having a birthday? Vicke in the London office and Amanda in Seattle are ready to make you a cake. Did you just start with Distilled? We’re having a team lunch to celebrate. While providing snacks and coffee in your office is a proven perk, it’s essential to invest in events and the time you get to spend together around the food. Company sponsored and organized events increase a sense of belonging, connecting you to both the company and the people in it.

Regardless of whether you want to hold company happy hours or softball games, keep in mind your events should be:

  • Inclusive - don’t let anyone feel left out because of age, gender, ability, or allergy.

  • Relevant - not sure what your team enjoys? Conduct some surveys or polls before you decide on your trip to the aquarium.

  • Finite - the best events have clear start and end times, so people can plan their lives or other commitments around them.

Not sure what kinds of events work best for your office culture? Focus on activities that allow for casual socializing, but that typically highlight something specific. Birthdays, engagements, and other employee life events are easy starting points.

Some ideas of ours that you’re welcome to steal include themed potlucks and Friday happy hour. On Fridays, all three offices host an optional gathering at the end of the workday to unwind and relax as a team, complete with bubbly water and alcohol (with and without bubbles). A couple weeks ago, Amanda, our fabulous People Operations Executive, organized an office “Waffle Bar” potluck. She brought the iron and we brought the toppings.

Your company will see an increased sense of community if you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is - sometimes literally.

Let people bring their home to work

Create an office environment where employees can bring their authentic selves (and maybe their Corgi) without feeling like they’re breaking the rules. If employees have to leave too much of their lives out of the workplace, it will make it difficult for them to get to the workplace, especially if flexibility is part of your office culture.

Consider making your office-friendly towards kids, dogs, bikes (and their storage), as well as casual dress. Even if you can’t condone casual dress at all times, casual dress days or events can go a long way towards making your people feel comfortable. Remember the novelty of “bring your daughter/son to work” days? If your office has a more corporate or formal feel, you can still create structured opportunities to let your employees bring their home to the workplace.

Even if your building doesn’t allow dogs, it can become a perfect reason to organize a dog-friendly event somewhere nearby.

Do sweat the small stuff

The littlest detail can go a long way towards making your employees feel connected and motivated to be in the office. The small stuff we like best at Distilled includes plants, music and, not surprisingly, video games.

While their ability to improve air quality might be a myth, the ability of plants to increase happiness and productivity have long been felt if only recently measured. In the Seattle office, we have some very happy dracaena, palm trees, succulents, air plants, pothos (ivy), and even a bird of paradise.

An intangible asset to your office is the addition of or access to music. Spotify and Sonos are small expenses to allow anyone in the office to be a DJ for the afternoon. If you’re a heads down office and having music playing in larger spaces is a terrible idea, consider reimbursing employees the cost of a music subscription.

Finally, while the idea of a neat and tidy office might seem optimal, studies have shown clutter to be important for ideation. Allow for areas of organized chaos. We have nicely- cluttered bookshelves and a TV that doubles as a projector screen and a Mario Kart station. A quick lap around Moo Moo Meadows is (almost) better than an afternoon cup of coffee.  

Whether you’re drawn to reorganizing desks, planning events, bringing your dog to work, or playing Mario Kart, we hope one of our tips helps your office feel more like home - and maybe gets you more face-time with your teammates as a result.

Love our office lifestyle tips? If you’re tempted to immerse yourself fully in the Distilled culture, we have a number of open roles, particularly on our London team. Do you have some killer employee happiness tips to share from your current or previous company? We would love to hear about what gets you out of bed and into the office in the comments below.


Working from the Office - the New Working from Home was originally posted by Video And Blog Marketing

How Voice Search Can Impact Your SEO for 2018

title_How-Voice-Search-Can-Impact-Your-SEO-for-2018

Search engine technology has seen quite the evolution over the past few years, with updates from companies like Google creating better search engines that helps users get the best results. This series of updates that Google has done over the past few years not only improves search results, but also help accommodate and adapt new technologies such as mobile sites and voice search.

Voice search has taken a good percentage of all total searches across the world. This is thanks in part due to AI assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and Bixby, who help users with their various inquiries. This convenience has placed voice search in a position to become a search standard in the near future.

How Voice Search Works

Performing a voice search on Google is just as simple and quick as doing a typed search. All you have to do is to simply click the microphone icon on the search bar, and then you’re set.

Google Voice Search

Once you have clicked the icon, you are given a few seconds to speak, and give your inquiry. It is best to make sure that your voice would be heard clearly through your microphone to get the most accurate results. For this case, my inquiry was “What is SEO Hacker”.

Google Voice Search Speak Now

Upon hearing my inquiry, Google got what I was looking for, and answered my question. When it comes to short inquiries, voice search is quite effective in generating good results. It is worth noting that voice searches work best when it is in question form, as a high number of users use it to search for things such as the best food places, notable personalities, and other important locations.

Google Voice Search SEO Hacker

Google Hummingbird Update

One of the updates that changed Google for the long-term is the Hummingbird update. This update emphasized semantic search, which aims to create more accurate results through understanding the context and the intent of the user’s search inquiry. This shifted the focus to meaningful search queries, which mean, searches that are structured in sentences and phrases.

Take this query, for example. When I asked Google about “What is the closest shopping mall to my current location”, it immediately responded by giving me a list of the nearest shopping malls. Other search engines tend to read only the keywords of your search term, like “shopping mall”, but Google takes into account the whole statement, which helps it “learn” language better.

Google Hummingbird search example

How to Optimize for Voice Search

With voice searches becoming more common as time passes, optimizing for voice search would help gain more search traffic, and help users who would like to avail of your products and services. Here are some effective methods to optimize your website for voice search.

Identify the purpose of the search

One of the first things that you should know first is what are people using voice search for. It is best to look for statistical data to see the numbers, and know the purpose of these searches. Here is a helpful infographic which shows where voice searches are used.

Google Voice Search Survey

Based on this infographic, both teens and adults commonly use voice search to ask for directions, call someone, and check out movie times. For those with businesses, one of the most important strategies that need to be done would be to have your business listed on Google My Business, as local results tend to come up the most in location-based voice searches. For example, when I came looking for the nearest Japanese restaurant, businesses that have Google My Business are the ones that popped out first.

Google Voice Search Inquiry 2

Use Question Phrases

When it comes to search terms for voice, it is best to create search terms that users would most likely utter. With that in mind, keeping them short and simple is the best way to go. Question phrases are the most common search terms on voice, which is why using where, what, how, when, who, why, and how questions are very much preferred. Going back to the Japanese restaurant example, “where” questions are the best for most businesses, while “how” and “why” questions provide users with helpful information like guides and tutorials.

It is also beneficial to create a question and answer format on pages targeted for voice searches, as Google prefers pages that already would be able to answer the question of the user, and feature them on top of the results pages.

Mobile and User-Friendliness

With user-friendliness always being a priority, and with mobile users dominating searches, having a responsive design website definitely helps. Mobile users want a site that is accessible and easy to navigate on a device, along with having a fast load speed. These are important factors on the bounce rate, and helps users last longer on your website.

How Voice Search Impacts SEO

With voice garnering a good chunk of total internet searches, it is imperative to optimize your website for voice search. This helps increase internet traffic for your existing keywords, and even establish new keywords that you can use to help users find your business. In a fast and results-based world, voice search will continue to be part of SEO’s future, and we may see a time where it can surpass traditional written searches. With AI Assistant and semantic search paving the way, it is best to make sure you have webpages optimized for voice search.

Key Takeaway

Voice search looks to be a part of the future of SEO, and it is best to come prepared. With some of these effective steps, you would be able to utilize voice search to your advantage.

If you have inquiries about voice search and SEO in general, leave a comment below and let’s talk.


How Voice Search Can Impact Your SEO for 2018 was originally posted by Video And Blog Marketing

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Beware of the Power of Brand: How a powerful brand can obscure the (urgent) need for optimization

We’ve all been there before. You go online to order something from a well-known brand but can’t figure out how to navigate the site. You push through, even though you want to click away, because you know they have a great product and you can’t get it anywhere else. Your motivation to buy is already high.

People who already know the value of a particular brand often remain loyal customers to that brand, even though they may have to suffer through a poor user experience.

But there are those who are not so motivated. They may not be as familiar with the brand and consequently, not so forgiving. Too much friction or anxiety-causing elements can drive away many potential customers.  And big brands need to be aware of this.

Beware of those situations where the power of the brand obscures the quality (or lack thereof) in your messaging.

— Flint McGlaughlin, Managing Director and CEO, MECLABS Institute

In this Quick Win Clinic, Flint McGlaughlin takes a look at UBER’s landing page to see if the quality of the user experience matches the quality of the brand. Watch the video to learn how to avoid the marketer’s blind spot.


Beware of the Power of Brand: How a powerful brand can obscure the (urgent) need for optimization was originally posted by Video And Blog Marketing

A Marketer's Guide to Models

Clients desperately want forecasts and as a result, we hear these questions all the time - all boiling essentially down to some variant on:

These are scary questions to hear from a client - and they are easy ones to push back on - often with some variant on the common reasons reputable SEO firms don’t promise guaranteed search rankings. Especially early in our careers as consultants, it is incredibly easy to fall into the trap of pushing back on the specific thing the client asked for (because we’ve learned that we need to be a trusted advisor rather than just a paid lackey who’ll say yes to any request). Well, I’m here today to tell you that’s a mistake.

Very rarely is a client looking for a contractual guarantee of future performance (if they are, the only way this can work is on a pay-for-performance model which would have to be the topic of its own post. But suffice it to say that there’s no such thing as a successful cheap pay-for-performance contract - any that work are going to be very expensive so plan accordingly). And we shouldn’t fall back on the Google position that reputable firms don’t offer ranking guarantees. That’s not what smart clients are looking for.

So, if they’re not looking for a contractual guarantee, what are they looking for? In my experience, it boils down to needing the tools to better make or better justify decisions:

  • Those who hold budgets are typically looking at a range of options and trying to figure out which is best, and whether any of them have a chance of meeting the objectives at a reasonable cost

  • Anyone who has to build organisational support for a plan needs answers to questions about expected outcomes - what exactly this looks like will vary by organisation (see for example Amazon’s memo-based process) but will fundamentally involve the output of this kind of process

In both these cases, I’d argue that the true need is more like a range of likely scenarios than it is a single forecast. Everyone understands that things might not work perfectly as planned or precisely as in the best case scenario - but by presenting some scenarios, they get a feel for the range of outcomes and a sense of the risk associated with them.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s step back to some definitions.

The difference between models, scenarios, and forecasts

There are three terms that I hear thrown around somewhat interchangeably - model, scenario, and forecast - that I’d like to give my definition for to make sure we are talking about the same things:

Model

A model in this context is similar to the concept of a “scale model” - in other words, a smaller, simplified version of the real thing that shows how it works. Typically built in spreadsheets in a business context, this is a mechanism for turning inputs and assumptions into outputs or outcomes - it essentially encapsulates an opinion on “what the levers do”.

In the context of digital marketing, it might be a spreadsheet that captures how much more traffic we might get over time if we change the pace of publishing different kinds of content on our site.

Scenario

A scenario is a model along with a specific set of inputs and assumptions - not necessarily the set of assumptions that the author believes to be the most likely - it’s more a case of “what happens if the world looks like this and we do that?”. Scenarios are most useful and interesting when we produce a range of them in order to discuss the likelihood and attractiveness of different outputs.

In the context of digital marketing, this might include assumptions around how average tests change conversion rates and what proportion might turn out to be successful along with inputs about how many experiments we might be able to run per quarter.

Forecast

A forecast is essentially an opinionated scenario - it’s the outcome you think is likely if you follow a certain path and try to execute a certain plan. It is possible to have a group of forecasts - either under varying plans (inputs) or with different assumptions (essentially a group of forecast scenarios - e.g. conservative / aggressive).

The power of scenarios

For the most part, when people ask for “a” forecast, the best answer is a range of scenarios that show possible outcomes and the sensitivity to assumptions and inputs. It’s much easier to put these scenarios together if you first focus on the much lower-pressure task of building a model without the stress of having to calibrate the right assumptions and perfect plan.

A range of scenarios helps in most requests for a forecast - it’s useful for getting sign-off as you can focus on how much of the range of outcomes has sufficient return to justify the investment. It’s also good for attempting to constrain the limited number of cases where the activity turns out not to have been worthwhile - and even allows you to change the plan to reduce the impact of those failure cases if needed.

Earlier in the process, it’s good for figuring out if something is a vaguely sensible plan before getting too committed to it - does the top end of the range of possible outcomes have a big enough impact to be worthwhile? If you can’t even model a result that’s worth it, you need to act immediately to revise the plan because it’s clearly not going to be something you’re going to want to pitch.

What do you do with the output?

It’s good practice to visualise the output of the model even as you are building it - we’re visual creatures, and having a couple of charts updating in the background makes it much easier to spot flawed assumptions, issues with the model, and outright bugs:

It’s also generally the case that you are going to want to summarise the output of the model to make it useful - there are two key ways that I tend to do this:

  1. With charts and images - this is particularly powerful for comparing the outcomes of different scenarios or understanding the sensitivity to particular assumptions

  2. To drive headline numbers - it can be powerful to open a presentation with a “wow” statistic (“this investment can drive £Xm of incremental revenue over the next three years”). You can do this by opening with a single number from the output of a scenario and then back it up by building up a “pyramid” of supporting information and assumptions - drilling only as deep down the stack as this particular audience needs you to

Here’s an example slide from a business case document I built recently for a prospective e-commerce customer of our ODN SEO split-testing platform:

I wrote an article about writing better business documents that is relevant here:

Note: Sometimes you will share the actual model - but generally only as a deeeeeep appendix. The model is how you create the scenario(s) which becomes the data at the bottom of the pyramid. Even the exact scenarios might only be an appendix - instead, you need to remember to tell the story that you discover this way.

How do you build a great model?

The first thing to note is that the pressure feels much lower as soon as you acknowledge that you are just building scenarios at first. The first scenarios don’t have to be close to realistic - you are just trying to capture the mechanics of how things change when you move input assumptions around. This stage is just about getting the levers in place. You can set sensible assumptions later.

Top-down vs bottom-up models

Broadly speaking, there are two ways of connecting the levers - you can build your model “top-down” or “bottom-up”. These are finance terms - where they define the differences as:

  • Top-down model: is one which starts with the market as a whole and estimates market share, forecasts trends over time in % terms etc.

  • Bottom-up model: is one which starts with the product or service itself, looks at units, at production capacity, at route to market etc.

Although the outputs of our work are often financial, they are not exclusively so - and certainly not in the sense of concepts like market share being consistently useful, so my versions for the kind of models marketers build are:

  • Top-down model: looks at percentages and trends - which tends to make it better for modelling established sites and operations - these models are more likely to talk about the keyword universe and share of voice or to extrapolate from current performance with tweaks to the growth curve

  • Bottom-up model: looks at raw numbers - typically thinking in pieces of content, individual channels, specific routes to users - hence these models tend to be better for modelling new sites, sections and markets. They are more likely to talk about individual keyword demand, production capacity, and other raw activities

Properties of good models

As you’re building your model, here are some pointers to help you stay on the right track:

  1. Keep your inputs separate - I like to end up with them on a totally different sheet in Excel when I’m ready to ship my model, but while you’re building it you probably want to keep the assumptions physically close so you can tweak them easily. The key thing here is that you don’t want them scattered throughout the model. You want them separated and grouped together so that you can see them all, they are enumerated, and you can tweak them to understand their effects

  2. Think about key inputs and what direction they move your key outputs. What’s the relationship? Does doubling the input double the output? More? Less?

  3. Which are the biggest effects? Model them as monolithic effects initially and then later you can break them down. For example, you might say that the number of successful tests is a key factor. Start with that. You can break it down to attempted tests later and get closer to specifics that are in your control

  4. As you start to see the model take shape, spend some time playing with the inputs and watching the outputs. Don’t worry about overt realism yet, but instead focus on the dynamics - does everything move in the direction you expect? Does it move in the ratios or proportions you expect? Explore the space of possible inputs a bit.

Specifically for models of marketing activities, there are a couple of very common specific themes:

  • You will generally need some concept of a time delay - I like to build models with time periods running left to right across the sheet. You will typically find that you end up setting up your model so that there is a cascading effect where changes in one row in a given time period cascade to future time periods as they move down through the rows

  • You will often need to factor competition into your models - either as explicit assumptions of how fast they are going, or more often as a more generic “how hard will it be to achieve this portfolio of effects”. I tend to prefer to model it the second way - focusing on competition as an abstract dampener or as a range of difficulties

Define your inputs and assumptions

Inputs and assumptions look similar, but they have some key differences:

  • Assumptions are things that you’re just trying to get right - and that are generally properties of your world that aren’t going to change. Something like “time for Google to recrawl and reindex my homepage” would be an example of an assumption in most models

  • Inputs are explicitly designed to be changed - this is how you build scenarios - they correspond to different decisions. Something like “number of contract content writers” would be an example of an input

As you initially build the model, don’t worry at all about putting anything realistic in for the assumptions and inputs. In fact, I often put outlandish values in initially just to make sure that I see the effect I expect from very high or very low values. Get the mechanics working, then, before you start playing with the inputs, get your assumptions to reasonable levels:

  1. True values: if you can get the actual values from your own site, then this do this. Remember that assumptions control the behaviour of your model, but they’re not the things you are trying to change to do better

  2. Benchmark: if you don’t have your own data, can you lay your hands on industry data? You will often be able to find public data sources or reports that give you a sense of reasonable ranges, and/or you can often ask around in industry circles - see if your frenemies will tell you how they’re doing

  3. Intuition: even if you don’t have accurate data for your own environment, and no-one you know will share yours, you may have a good intuitive sense of where the right answer might roughly lie. If you do, you can sense-check your ranges - socialise your views by discussing ranges with industry contacts - even if they won’t tell you their numbers, you can often check with them that you’re in the right ballpark

  4. Use the model: failing all of that, you can sometimes still set sensible assumptions by playing with the model and getting familiar with how the output varies and making sure that the outputs seem sensible - this is most useful when you are trying to work backwards - “to achieve outcome X, we’d have to be getting Y% of tasks above Z threshold”

Run some scenarios

Now you’re ready to run some scenarios. Remember that a scenario is what I’m calling “a model along with a specific set of inputs and assumptions”. So you’ve set your assumptions above - meaning that the way you generate scenarios is by tweaking your inputs. I like to start by just playing about with unrealistic ranges of each input - typically I find at least one bug in my model this way when it completely fails to react to an input or does something unexpected.

More interestingly, even when you’ve built a highly-complex and detailed model, you will often find that its outputs are only truly sensitive to one or two key inputs and that the output changes very little as you play around with the others.

Even if it’s not perfect, you start to be able to shape your plan using a model in this state. In particular, you can focus your energy on pushing those specific parts of the plan that move the key inputs. I’m reminded of this quote:

"It’s important to make good decisions. But I spend much less time and energy worrying about “making the right decision” and much more time and energy ensuring that any decision I make turns out right.”

Sean McNealy - a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and its long-time CEO (see this HBR article and this presentation from my colleague, Craig)

The mechanics of building a model

You’ll notice that I haven’t really dug into the actual mechanics of getting models from idea to implementation. For most people, this will involve spreadsheets, and the great thing about spreadsheets is that you can use them with almost any level of computer skill - from typing each cell into a table all the way up to complex linked models. For an excellent primer, I still recommend an article that a colleague of mine at the time (Mike Pantoliano) wrote back in 2012 or so: Excel for SEO.

I wanted to share something real, but everything I’ve built recently has been too niche or too confidential, so I put together a completely made-up dummy one. When you take a look at it, you’ll realise that it’s obviously not designed to be useful - but rather to illustrate some of the points I have been making above. I have annotated it with notes to show where I have demonstrated key elements. Although it’s not large or sophisticated, I have done my best to show most of the key features you’d need to build something much more involved.

GET AN EXAMPLE OF A SCENARIO MODEL

I’ll leave you with one final tip: formatting and colour-coding is your friend. You’ll find your model so much easier to work with (and easier to explain to and share with others) if you use formatting to make it clear what different cells do. Here’s the key from my example model:

I’d love to hear your own experiences building models. What tips and tricks do you use all the time? How do you prepare forecasts and scenarios that stand up to client/boss scrutiny?


A Marketer's Guide to Models was originally posted by Video And Blog Marketing