Trends in Online Marketing Consulting

Late last year I commented a bit on how the role of paid links has been changing.

Not long thereafter, Todd posted an announcement of how he's taking his own consulting services in more of an expanded online business management direction. He proposed that SEO consultants' online marketing services aren't fundamentally that different than those offered by many global networks, names with which most businesses are familiar On that point and per my own experience I basically agree... [Sidebar: with the slight caveat that one player he mentioned which I'll not call out here, I should hope the average SEO consultant has it much more together than they do.].

Today, Rand announced SEOmoz is no longer taking on new consulting clients, formally partnering with Distilled in that area, and shifting its own focus toward its tools suite. It's a good idea. After a foray into building its own search database, SEOmoz has made significant changes in reworking and diversifying its tools. Like a lot of SEOs, a Pro account with SEOmoz is one of the many things I've kept in my bag since 2005. When I use their stuff I use it heavily, often pounding away on their servers for a few days around the clock mining data for juxtaposition against other sources. As more people have become users of their tools over the years, I've felt their platform occasionally strain on and off under the increased demand, coupled with the inherent challenges in scraping data from search engines. Focusing on keeping their stuff not just up and responsive but also moving in the directions power users need them to go, on their quest to come up with a software platform that bodes well more to notions like "enterprise class" and "industry standard" - making and growing data partnerships along the way as needed - is the right direction for their product strategy.

What's most noteworthy to me however, is these events are indicators of larger trends:

1) Tools: More of these is not what SEOs, social media marketers and marketing analysts most need. The market, in the SEO area especially, has gone from saturated to over-saturated. I could probably load this blog full of a new tool review every day and be occupied for at least 4 months if I wanted.

If you're trying to come up with a cool new SEO tool, ask if it's the most important thing you should be doing with your development skills. If it is, hopefully you're making something that will be more than slightly different than other things already out there. It had better be something really specialized or otherwise compelling. Do you make a keyword research tool? Show me one that lets me trace records to pools of customer psychographics (or vice-versa) that, if it must cost me tens of thousands of dollars per year, offers me a free trial and lets me subscribe on a pay-per-month model. Do you make something nasty that scrapes data or other assets from social network profiles? Show me something nastier that can not just grab photos but can intelligently aggregate, remix and then regenerate entire user profiles. Do you make buzz monitoring software? Show me something that beyond monitoring brand mentions lets me cross-reference sentiment accurately while sourcing back to Tweeters who not only have high Follower counts but moreover whose profiles link to blogs that have high Feedburner counts as well as affiliate footprints on them. Bottom line? Show me a way to connect the dots that's compelling because it's faster and smarter, running deeper and wider. Do things like this even at the proof-of-concept level and you'll have me at "hello" in terms of how you're thinking, which goes a long way toward me potentially becoming a customer and for the long term. Show me new ways one person can do in 2010 what was the work of 3-5+ people in 2009. That's what tech-savvy Web marketers need more of, nowadays especially. In the meantime, nobody needs another web page that checks to see if our sites' Title tags are unique, with our brand mentions as the suffix instead of the prefix and keeping within 60 characters or less. Please.

With tools, probably what online marketers of various ilks need most is to focus on integrating the ways that they use and apply what they get out of them, and mapping all that more definitively and clearly to business benefits. For example, SEOs should be able to show that they can do more than just drive ranking and traffic improvements. They should be able to show that they can actually increase conversion rates from organic search. In some cases that might even have comparatively more business benefit (though today it still all-too-rarely occurs to marketers to question whether the highest-volume queries within their clients' niches are really the most important ones for them to put highest priority on).

2) Consulting: I think in the coming years the increased demand for SEO and social media marketing expertise won't necessarily trigger a proliferation of boutique firms or independent contractors or consultants. This is an area where there's also been saturation, albeit more recently and for different, primarily economic reasons. Where this space is going is probably going to be characterized by a few things:

  • Partnerships and Consolidation. Watch for more buddying-up, from global networks to mom n' pop shops.
  • Vertical Consultants. The sun is probably setting a bit on the days of the individual SEO generalist. Likewise, the next time you see anyone touting the word "guru" on their business card or LinkedIn profile, there's a 75% chance that will be reason to stick your finger down your throat and then click on. Just as boutiques have for a long time often built their businesses specializing in certain spaces, expect to see more individual SEO and social media consultants doing the same. This started at least a few years ago with areas like Real Estate and Health and Wellness, and has been around even longer in close correlation with competitive affiliate marketing niches. 2010 will see more individual consultants positioning themselves specifically to cater to areas like Tech, Finance, Consumer Products and perhaps others, also not just by industry but by market (read: Local). Some of the smartest SEOs I know have been focusing all their direct time on just 1-3 niches for years. That's not just because of repeat business. Symbiotically, progress with a given situation takes time, also can build upon itself which is often easier than starting into a new project in a whole new space. That's especially true if the client is themselves a new entrant into said space.
  • Consultants Expanding Scope. When it comes to SEO, social media and PR, whether these areas are on a convergence or a collision course just depends on whether the person you ask is competent or not. Consultants who "get it" will keep positioning themselves as higher-level online business (marketing and sales) operatives. Similarly, in-house SEOs and social buzz builders will be reaching out to their PR departments and/or agencies to align agendas, as part of advocating more than ever that their trades don't just impact all facets of online marketing - they underscore them. Conversely, of those who aren't in tune with where the Web is moving, social media tricksters and cheerleaders will continue to run themselves ragged through the churn n' burn of dog n' pony shows, falling into the no-man's land between transparency and irrelevance, becoming that dude(ess) you eventually Unfriend because 9/10 of their status updates is them hyping their own crap. Likewise, over in the PR world the old guard will continue to go stale, leaving clients too much to the mercy of the Web, in essentially reactive market positions and in worst cases prepared for potential reputation management crises armed with little more than a sheet of stodgy, boilerplate talking points.

There's a world of opportunity out there, but it will be reserved for brands who not just buy off on the core concept of deep SEO, social media and PR integration but who actually apply it. It takes work; probably above all aggressive nonetheless careful planning and clear thinking. First impressions matter and damage done takes a while to undo, so this includes looking first hard inward before projecting hard outward. This also includes grasping the basic mechanics enough to get a sense for how to tell the people whose hands are actually on the engines of perception apart from those who have been spending more time pondering, gossiping, running surveys, giving presentations or otherwise talking about social media marketing than they have been actually implementing it (whether loudly or behind-the-scenes) for clients or other employers. At the end of the day, clients who look carefully enough to not confuse careful comparative shopping for simple popularity contests: FTW.

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