Marketing Unicorns – The CryptoZoology of Internet Marketing

There are a number of mythical creatures and concepts in internet marketing. They’re the unicorns – the things that everyone has heard about but don’t actually exist. Remember the tech bubble of the 1990s? Everyone was sure that if you get invested in the internet, you get rich. In that gold rush, just touching the net imparted two things – riches and viruses. I remember the people who wouldn’t plug their computer into the phone system (this was before broadband), because viruses would leap out of the wall and destroy their computers. Others bought “web profits” packages from infomercials, sure that if you could have a web site, you could rake in business. Angels and demons of the web, that’s what you had, and they were unicorns every one. The following are some modern marketing unicorns that are as common as Yeti sightings on the tundra:

Meta-tags: There’s an almost prayer-like faith in meta-tags, the core of traditional search engine optimization, the hidden technical wizardry, the keywords embedded in your web pages. It doesn’t seem to matter that years ago Google stopped caring about your keywords, and started reading your site like humans do, using something like artificial intelligence algorythms, and that it started emphasizing how frequently you care enough to post something new to your site far more than some back-end hidden gremlin designed to whisk in scores of clients who show up passively and compliantly like search zombies following the scent of whatever food you offer. You can’t stop people from believing. People believe in lots of things out there – just look at the world. The web encourages a kind of magic worldview wrapped up in the conviction that technical means are the most effective means, and the really, really good stuff is too arcane to be understood. And a lot of “search engine optimization experts” encourage this attitude. Never mind that some of the best minds on successful internet marketing, people that get $1000/hr, not some puny “I’m an SEO” wage, have said stop freaking worrying about your meta-tags and start blogging. If not, at least let your business die quietly, without all the whining about search results that annoy businesses that are making a real effort. It’s much easier to listen to a guy telling you that for $99.99 you can be “#1” whatever that means, in Google. Sure, baby. Sure. I believe in elves and fairies, you believe that stuff – it’s all good. If you could make Google bow to your whim, it wouldn’t be by tossing in a bunch of phrases behind the page. That’s fine, that’s good, but it’s not enough for a unicorn. It’s good to do your meta-tags, and do them well, but then move on, because if that’s all there is, you might as well have not done them.

Marketing Cows: These are actually unicorns disguised as cows. To listen to a lot of people talk about internet marketing, it’s a form of Svengali-like mind control upon a passive and willing audience. So many people speak of their target prospects as personality-free “searchers” who respond automatically if you put your “listing” in front of them, do well in google, if the web site is pretty enough (tip: plenty of ugly web sites do successful business), or if you can get them to click (it’s just as easy to click-away). But people are more complex than that, and there’s not just one thing that they respond to and nothing that they automatically respond to. Successful internet marketing efforts treat people like people, not like cows. They don’t degrade them by expecting an automatic response, and so the most effective web marketing efforts are interactive, social, and pay attention to what different personality types typically need to make a decision (to call, to buy, or whatever). There are some cows out there, but they’re busy giving out their credit card numbers over the phone and responding to e-mails by princes from Nigeria who just need a small loan to free up vast riches. We’re betting those aren’t your prospects on the whole. The biggest mistake in internet marketing is… drumroll please… underestimating your audience. It’s marketing suicide. And, it’s belief in unicorns.

ROI: Return on investment.  Here’s another acronym: TANSTAAFL. “There aint no such thing as a free lunch.” You get what you pay for. That said, there’s not much you can’t do with enough cash. Don’t expect to plunk down $200 for a couple of tweaks to your web site and get “return on investment”. Marketing can be cheap, effective, easy, but not all three. If you could buy a unicorn, it wouldn’t be for the price of a decent dinner in New York. There is a secret to that – the biggest return on investment comes from frequent, consistent, prolongued effort. If you’re short on cash, then that’s a better focus. If you’ve got to have someone else do it for you, be prepared to pay well for it. It’s premium work, so don’t expect it for pocket change tossed out once in a while like Scrooge the miser parting grudgingly with his one lump of coal. You think it’s that easy or cheap? That is exactly like the meta-tags unicorn. It’s the belief that, ‘it’ll be fixed if we just smear on a dab of effort or a lot of effort for a dab of cash. Just a dab’ll do ya.” Sure, paying for well-written marketing updates is a great idea, if you plan to be consistent, thoughtful, and do it right over time. If you’re planning to test the waters and expect to cancel in a month or two if there’s no increase, don’t even get started. That’s a tiny drop in a really, really big bucket. What’s a few blog posts over the course of a year? Another way to ask that is, what should we think of a business that turns on its lights an average of once a month? That’s about how search engines treat businesses on the web that show too little added value or posting activity over a long enough time. Expect to sink below anyone making a consistent and concerted effort for any prolonged period. Three months of halfhearted snippets won’t do it. And neither will handing someone a couple of bills and saying ‘fix it’. Easy, cheap, or effective – pick two. If you’ve got all three, it’s a unicorn.

Being #1: Let me say this now and for all time. There’s no such thing as “being first in Google”. It’s complete nonsense. There’s only how you do for a particular search pattern. Some people type in their company name, come up first, and say “see, I’m first in Google”. Yeah, if Google was a phone book, you’d do great. It’s fine for existing prospects and clients that already know what company they want, but it hardly does anything for new clients. When someone searches the net, they typically pair down to a locale and an industry term. Like “Salt Lake City UT Realtor” or “Las Vegas NV Psychotherapist”. That’s generally what you want to search. Some people try to make it easier – “I cover these three counties”. Yeah, but are most prospects searching by county? I’ve lived in about 23 cities, and most of the time I had no idea what county I was in. It just wasn’t relevant. When I was in Knoxville TN, I’d search Knoxville TN Book Store. I still don’t know what county that was. You have to search like people search to see how you’re doing.

It’s not a bad goal to do well in Google, of course. You might do well in select searches, if you do some of the right things, but it will vary, because you can only optimize for (or target) maybe 10 search phrases effectively from a single web site (if you’re just relying on SEO – search engine optimization – see metatags above – and no other SEM – search engine marketing or other techniques). And sometimes it’s fewer than that, because it’s sort of like kung fu – martial arts are great, but the other guy isn’t just standing still. He’s competing for the same thing, and there are a lot of other guys. A lot depends on your service area. The most hotly contested search terms in the most hotly contested service areas will be the hardest to do well in, and the least likely to be won with SEO alone. We’ll talk more about how to work on this problem in a minute. The other reason there’s no such thing as #1 is that it’s one thing to achieve a high result, it’s another thing to hold onto it. The results will definitely change over time, and the cheesier the gimmick, the quicker the change. But if a site is climbing due to something solid like frequent, 100% original, highly relevant posts or updates, and then the business goes silent for a length of time, or becomes infrequent in updates, expect it to begin sinking like quicksand. There are just too many other fish in the sea. This unicorn myth? Busted!

Passive Marketing: That’s like saying fat-free pudding. I’m sorry, but that’s no longer pudding. This one is huge for a lot of people selling us vague or technically dazzling marketing recipes, because it means “effortless, thought-free” marketing, and then you look down at your hands and find you’re holding air. You can have it easy, cheap, or effective – pick two. And with passive marketing, pick only one, because it doesn’t really exist. Marketing is inherently a social art. If you’re one of those people who’s saying, “I’ll never touch that social stuff”, translated into today’s parlance, that means “I’ll never do any marketing.” What you’ll do is things we tell ourselves are marketing – see “meta-tags” above, for instance. Passive marketing is an extinct unicorn. It’s shelf life was 5-minutes. There really was a time when there were a few dozen web sites, and being one of them got you name recognition, and it helped business. Then, the next day, right after someone pointed it out in Newsweek or on CNN, there were a few hundred, then a few thousand, and that unicorn died of overpopulation. Now there are hundreds of sites for just for one set of search terms in one area that you serve in your industry. Google “Santa Fe NM Plumber” and see how many results are listed. Internet marketing is inherently active, not passive. Your web site is not a phone book entry, and the web isn’t the yellow pages, where you can just buy a bigger ad. That was 1994. Effective marketing today isn’t waiting at your web site to ‘get found’. That’s a lot like making a resume, pinning it to a telephone pole, and waiting for the calls to pour in. Internet marketing involves going outside of your web site – leaving the box – and going where the people are – social media being the most common destination, but you can also do a lot in searches – it’s called Search Engine Marketing (SEM) as compared to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). If you’re still camping on your meta-tags – your SEOed web site – wondering where the crowds are – they’re out there, on the web, in the places you haven’t gone yet. This hasn’t been new information in years. The unicorn we’re waiting for on our web sites is a paleolithic one that died before we had a web site, and is now a fossil under a glass case somewhere.

Web Sites: Web sites exist – they surely do – but they might as well not exist in the majority of cases, because they’re not alive. They just sit there, with a ‘do not resuscitate’ order invisibly attached to their toe. A web site, by itself, that doesn’t experience frequent updates of 100% original, relevant content, is deaf, dumb, blind, and paralyzed, and probably has no pulse. Be careful, because disturbing it might rouse the living dead. I get asked all the time, “but if I ignore everything you’re telling me, that the web is social, that Google cares about frequent updates and dynamic content, that effective marketing is about leaving the web site and going where the people are, then what else would you recommend I do to my web site?” Burn it, pal. That’s what I recommend. Because it’s not doing you or anyone else any good. And it’s not just mean that’s telling you – anyone that isn’t trying to jam a $199 quick fix down your throat is saying this stuff. I know of businesses that operate entirely without their own web site, but they’re heavily involved in social media, search engine marketing (SEM), e-mail marketing, and ads. And they get very high responses. I’m always saying, “you need a freaking web site”, and I’m right. But that’s because they’re doing the other stuff, and it makes sense to have a central hub. Imagine having a transmission, and just sitting on it wondering why you’re not going anywhere? That’s the person with no other marketing efforts but a web site. Effective marketing is by overlapping a constellation of efforts. Blog posts get repurposed in social media and e-mail marketing, for instance. Video gets repurposed in your blog. One could go on. The single fix that makes a static web site devastate everyone else, no matter how hard they’re working, is a unicorn that even other unicorns couldn’t believe in. If we believe that, then a chocolate bar can take us to Wonka land, and clicking our heels together can get us home. A web site that sits there without consistent, prolongued updates, is like a photocopied flyer that we’ve pinned to the supermarket cork board, and about equally as effective. For that matter, you could at least hang a flyer on the cork board with tear off links to your web site and try to get some overlapping multiple marketing effect. But only if your target audience is hanging out in front of grocery store bulletin boards. The merely existing web site, all its optimizations performed (see meta-tags above), and so on, that just sits there, is the undead unicorn – the unicorn zombie. And it’s always going to get beat even by other dead unicorn sites, because they’ve been there longer, and they already get more verified clicks, so they get seen first.

Free Help: Yeah, most consultants provide an initial free consultation. Partly so you can eye them over, and partly so they can assess your general and initial needs. But after that, TANSTAAFL. We’ll help you, but anyone worth their salt helping you will a) at least suggest that unicorns are of dubious reality b) will charge you for their time, because time definitely is something real, and if we don’t get paid for thinking, analyzing, advising, coaching, training, writing, responding, and helping, we become unicorns – we don’t eat, we go out of business, and turn into the most useless of all things – the volunteer consultant. There aint nothing in this life for free but your momma’s love, I’ve heard it said. There’s plenty of free marketing to be had, but you have to put learning, thought, and effort into it. Take away any one of those components, and you either have to pay for it, or it doesn’t work – another unicorn. Again, you can have it cheap, easy, or effective – you get two. Anyone telling you otherwise, is selling something; we’re all selling something, you are, and I am, and they are. But they’re selling unicorns. Might as well wish on a garden gnome.

The real zoology – the stuff that actually exists and is effective is:

  • combined marketing efforts: to overlap and feed and help each other. Your blogging, e-mail marketing, social media, and SEM should all be operating at once and in sync, for optimum effect. You don’t have to fret if you’re only doing one of these – at least you’re doing something – you haven’t been chasing the unicorn of no effort marketing, or one of the others, like the meta-tag myth. But you should have a mapped out plan to go forward and grow your efforts. If you don’t have a direction and you’re dabbling, or being inconsistent, or waiting for the ROI for that one blog post per month and that $200 once/year, your unicorn is waiting. You want to neither rely on just one thing, because they’re designed to work in concert, nor dabble at several things. You don’t have to do it all, but you do have to combine something, to be successful.
  • concerned marketing efforts: meaning that once you have a plan, you start having marketing campaigns that are designed to produce results over time. Doing 10% of everything might as well be doing nothing, because you’re not making a concerted effort in any one thing – not following through. There is probably no greater commodity in internet marketing than consistency. If there was one thing we could instill, one core value, it would be that one. Don’t stop. I’ve watched clients do incredibly smart, creative things, and give up because they didn’t get results in three months going from nothing and 100% total obscurity or years of neglect. I’ve seen clients do mediocre and even somewhat annoying marketing efforts, who have reaped big, consistent rewards, and are growing constantly, because they kept at it. Frequency of effort and consistency of effort are the gold standard.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.

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