Successful SEO strategies demand differentiation. In today’s column, I am going to outline a seven-step process for figuring out how to differentiate your website. You may be struggling with how to do this because your product may be boring, and your space is crowded. So, I am going to start by taking a look at the auto insurance industry for inspiration.
Some Auto Insurance Examples
GEICO was the first auto insurance company to make a big splash by promoting their products with humor with its famous GEICO gecko. The campaign was extremely successful, and the message was very simple: “15 minutes can save you 15% or more on car insurance.”
This approach helped it build a major national brand. Humor was the vehicle for getting consumer attention, but the critical element was the simple and compelling value proposition for their product.
GEICO has continued to push the envelope in many ways. Its “even a caveman can do it” commercials deliver the message that even if you are stupid, you can do this. Everyone feels stupid at times, and many potential auto insurance customers are intimidated by computers and the Internet. Obviously, if a caveman can do it, so can you.
You have to love the subtleties in their series of commercials with the Pierce Brosnan look-alike. They deliver their message while creating associations with the audience’s childhood experiences. They use these associations to address the concern that people may have that the savings are not really there. Can I really save that much money with that little effort?
Did the little piggy really cry “wee wee wee” all the way home? Does Charlie Daniels play a mean fiddle? Associating the answer to these questions with the answer to whether GEICO can save you money on car insurance is brilliant.
One twist on this I like is providing an answer to a question that has never been answered before: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? Now you know: They won’t stop until the farmer makes them. Here, GEICO creates a sense of satisfaction by answering this question your brain may have heard hundreds of times or more, and then you’re hit with the discount message again.
Looking at the GEICO home page, however, the follow-through on this is a little weak. I think they would be better served by redelivering the “15 minutes can save you 15% or more” message prominently on the home page, and also showing both the gecko and the caveman to fully reinforce their TV messaging.
Their TV campaigns are so ubiquitous that they may not have felt the need to do so, but personally, I like to stack the deck as much as possible.
Progressive was later to the mass TV advertising campaign game, so its task was inherently more complex. A campaign based on humor and saving money was going to have to be different to work.
To their credit, they recognized this. Even though they were going after the exact same message of saving money on car insurance, they chose to offer a higher level of proof. They published their rates and those of their competitors for each market. This new level of transparency was novel, and they took it further by publishing competitive rates, even in those markets where their pricing was not the lowest.
As they grew, they started to introduce a dry humor, with the quirky Flo, but continued to offer clear examples of differentiation in their messages. Here are some examples of things that they promote:
Note that Progressive does a great job or reminding us that they are associated with Flo, and that you can save a lot of money with just a little time. The messaging is tied together really nicely here.
Even well-established brands such as Allstate have focused on clear differentiating messages. These include:
- Going back to basics with a company that has stood by you through depressions and 12 recessions.
- Comprehensive coverage (as emphasized by their mayhem commercials).
Allstate also does a nice job of tying their home page messaging to their TV commercials:
Studying other industries can be a great source of ideas of ways to differentiate. The key lesson is how quickly and simply the message gets delivered.
Don’t rely on your brand to make the sale for you on your website. Make sure that you deliver your value proposition message as clearly, simply and quickly as the auto insurance industry does with its TV commercials.
How Differentiation Impacts SEO
Figuring out how to differentiate your brand and your website is the single most important thing you can do from an SEO perspective. The auto industry insurance example above shows that just being a large brand is not enough.
You need to offer a unique value proposition that is obvious and apparent to casual visitors to your website. If a first-time visitor can’t tell why you are different in the first three seconds on your site, then you are not different.
And, if you aren’t different, your SEO will fail for many reasons, including:
- Potential linkers won’t link to you
- Social media influencers won’t +1/Like/Share your content
- User engagement metrics on the site will stink compared to competition
The same underlying psychological reasons that drive major brands to differentiate their message in TV advertising need to drive you to differentiate your message on your website. Linkers, influencers and search engine users are people.
Creating A Differentiation Strategy For Your Website
1. Brainstorm a list of value propositions.
Get your key staff into a room and lock the door. Give them whatever they need to stimulate their creativity, and brainstorm various ways to position your products/services on the web.
Spend a long time on this. Make sure you do this before you survey users or study in detail what the competition is doing. Do allow people to look at other industries, such as the auto insurance industry, for ideas.
I urge you to do this before studying the competition (any more than you already have) because the human brain is often more creative when it has less information. Many of you are going to want to skip this step (because we are all impatient), but don’t bias this part of the process with facts and data.
If you have already done the competitive or surveyed customers, make sure you don’t allow that information into the room during the brainstorming.
2. Survey prospective customers.
Put together a survey to get an idea from potential customers (some survey creation tips here). Instead of focusing on your value proposition, focus instead on their needs. Do they need to save money? Best service? Most features? Some particular features? Fastest results?
Include an open-ended question or two to solicit their ideas. For example, ask them what they are looking for in the product/service that they don’t think anyone in the market offers today.
If you are offering mass-market products you are in luck, because you can probably use a very simple mechanism such as Mechanical Turk to run your survey and get lots of data fairly cheaply. Or, if you already have decent traffic on your website, you can survey the people there. But if your brand is already known for something, this could bias the survey because your existing value proposition may already be in the visitor’s mind.
I prefer to use an impartial source. If neither of these work, then reach out to places where your prospective customers cluster. For example, industry associations, trade shows or other industry events, social media communities, or similar places.
3. Research your competitors.
Now that you have allowed your creativity free reign, go get some facts. Take the top three to five competitors you have and study their value propositions. Develop a detailed list of what you see on their site. Then, go do some more surveys, one competitor at a time, but focus these surveys on asking prospective customers what they believe the competitor offers. This will allow you to see how their message is bring received by the potential customer.
Make sure to get the people surveyed to indicate how strongly they believe in the message from the competitor. They may say that the competitor is promoting high quality, but does the customer believe it?
4. Look for the openings.
Get all your people in a room for the next brainstorming session, and dig in to analyze what you have found. Where are the opportunities? Is the competition weak in one or more areas? Are they making claims that they can’t substantiate but you can?
This discussion can often have a bit of a party atmosphere to it, and you should foster that. Have fun with this! You can mock your competitors and come up with outrageous ideas. At the end of it all, make sure you break this down into a few key ideas you are going to pursue.
A big focus at this point is the messaging of the idea. It’s great if you can come up with a benefit that everyone wants, but if it someone has to read two paragraphs of text to understand what it is, it won’t work. One sentence maximum, and ideally a sentence fragment.
5. Test out your ideas.
Now go back to your prospective customers, however you reached them last time, and test out the ideas. Try a new survey and see which ideas resonate.
An important subtlety here is the context. Offering a 15% discount on auto insurance in 15 minutes or less at this point is not novel. So the customer may pay for that, but there are going to pay GEICO for it, not you.
So make sure your survey positions these potential value propositions against existing competition. Are these benefits you don’t see others offering in the market? Are they powerful enough to cause the customer to buy your stuff instead of existing products?
6. Implement it on your site and test it again.
Once you have a value proposition that you can measure, it is time to figure out how to implement that on your site. As noted above, you have just a few seconds at most to help people get what it is they can get from you. On the site, the messaging can be quite subtle. Read Scott Brinker’s recent article on seductive landing pages for some ideas on messaging.
Seducing is not the only method. Humor works too, as exemplified by the GEICO and Progressive auto industry insurance commercial examples I used above. Another technique is establishing yourself as the most trusted, similar to the Allstate approach.
Whatever underlying tactic you use, make sure that the key benefit the customer is going to receive leaps from the page at them. Try some different versions of the implementation and go out and test how people respond to it.
Pay particularly close attention to how fast they get the value prop. On the Web, a lack of speed kills.
This all seems suspiciously like traditional marketing, doesn’t it? This is the way that things are headed.
What is different online than the TV environment is that the consumer has a lot more ways to make choices, and advertising is less about “interruption” and more about “informed choice.” TV ads interrupt your activity of choice. Searchers and people on social media sites are in control of the timing, and they are making informed choices.
But they are still people, and they respond to benefits. You need to offer them a benefit that is, or that you can help make, their biggest concern.
Use the power of the Web to help you refine your message. The constant surveys in my process follow the old-fashioned philosophy of “test, test, and then test again.” Collecting the data is relatively cheap. Rolling out a boring and undifferentiated strategy is not.
It will cost you in the traditional marketing sense, but it will also kill your SEO efforts.
It will send signals to potential linkers and social media influencers that there is nothing to see here, and nothing worth sharing. Visitors to your site will vote with their clicks and mouse movements. “Same old stuff I saw somewhere else. Nothing special here, so time to go.”
Meanwhile, the search engines see it all. They are looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
What is resonating with all the audiences that should be interested in your site? They will measure, measure and measure to find which sites linkers, influencers and customers will respond to the most, and so should you.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.