“I’m currently trying to save my business model from annihilation by SEO agencies.”
That’s what an experienced communications professional told me in response to my recent posts on how SEO agencies have become a serious threat to PR. While, having written about them, I wasn’t surprised to hear about the issues she’s facing, I was struck by how, as she says, she needs “skill to negotiate survival”.
Intrigued, I asked more about the situation.
She prefers to remain anonymous to protect her business interests. And while she may be an independent practitioner rather than an agency or in-house team, there are lessons here for all communicators.
Can you start off by telling us a little about yourself?
I’ve been working in social media and PR for about 5 years, having come from a background in journalism where I worked at the BBC for ten years. I started out when the whole area was so new that everything was very much up for grabs. I found myself working either solo or alongside existing marketers and PRs who had not yet got a grasp of social media, carving out a niche for myself doing the bits they could not do.
What’s the situation you’re currently facing?
One B2B client that I worked with as a copywriter had social media profiles which I considered to be rather poor. I spoke to them on a number of occasions about how it might be done better but they always said that it was run by their SEO company.
It looked like the agency wasn’t that bothered about the quality of the content. The Twitter feed was particularly poor, publishing stuff that was not relevant to their niche (like moments from history and birthdays) and the blog had relevant keywords in it but the content was dull.
It was evident to anyone who took five minutes to read through the stuff they were producing that the content was being created by junior staff members without any great knowledge of the client’s business.
About six month ago I managed to convince the client that good content was more than just a question of getting new material out on a regular basis. I suggested to them that if I actually engaged their clients, many of whom are well-known and with large Twitter followings of their own, then we might get somewhere. I managed to increase both their following and retweet rate pretty rapidly and added in relevant blog content that was good to read.
The client has now employed a new SEO agency that wants my slice of the pie, and it’s an attractive prospect to them.
Can you tell me a bit more about the agency?
The agency markets itself as the guys who create and manage websites with a complete inbound marketing service that covers SEO, email, marketing, blogs and social media (as well as website management and design).
The person who runs it is from a content marketing background, and they have people in-house as well as using freelance writers to produce content. My impression is that they are good at what they do.
By adding in the content part of their offering they make an excellent case to the client for having an ongoing billable relationship rather than simply overhauling the SEO as a one-off project and then moving on.
But it means an SEO agency is getting work which might otherwise have gone to a communications or marketing company. This is the heart of the issue.
How does their approach differ to that of a communications professional?
I always approach a brief with the idea that I am going to create the best possible content I can. My view is that to make it shareable it must be readable, informative etc. Using keywords within that is obviously important, as is making sure that you add in things like alt tags. An awareness of SEO informs everything I do but it is not my starting point.
But whereas I am looking more at ‘how can I showcase my client and foster a reputation for quality, thought leadership and usefulness’, these guys start from the point of view of ‘how does it help to get the client found online’.
The agency automates a lot of what they do using Google alerts, schedulers and automated tweeting, whereas I tend to trawl manually offering what I believe is a more responsive and bespoke service. I can do this as I only have five or six clients. I know the subject matter really well so I know where to look, and I can respond to breaking news.
Their ideas about how to target influencers are also different to mine. For example, I would never post content just to court an influencer if I didn’t think it was of benefit or interest to my client’s community as a whole.
I’m less about people finding my client and more about people using them.
So where does this leave you as a communications specialist?
It calls into question my whole business model of being a freelance social media content provider.
With this particular client, I have been integrated into the team but have lost some of my autonomy. I think what is saving me at present is my journalistic skills and writing ability.
To accommodate them I have had to change the way I do things. For example, I have to write several blogs in advance and schedule them rather than taking a more reactive approach. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and I do agree with their content ideas broadly.
However, it could easily have been different. It was evident that if I was let go then the SEO agency was going to farm out some of the blog writing work to their freelancers…who know nothing about the client’s business. I have developed a detailed knowledge of the client’s niche over the two to three years I have been writing for them so that would have been an obvious nonsense. But it could have happened.
I worry, because even when the whole debate over who gets social media, PR or marketing was going on, there was space for freelancers who could fill in the gaps. Now I feel that this land grab from the SEO agencies is sweeping all before it.
What do you think are the implications for the PR industry as a whole?
It seems that clients really like the SEO agency pitch that puts search first. Some clients are just not that bothered about the content being created on their behalf and, as long as it doesn’t make them look foolish, they don’t have the time to make fine choices between different writers.
SEO is still the thing communications, marketing and social media people don’t do well. We are weak in this area; it’s our achilles heel. Smart agencies who can integrate it all well have got something pretty strong to sell.
I have seen it being done really badly (the first agency in this example) and worryingly well (the second). And I have to question whether clients know enough about the subject as a whole to ask the right questions and make sure they are not signing up to link bait merchants.
In the meantime, people like me who have specific communications skills and who have developed knowledge and good relationships with clients risk being swept away.