Search Storytelling

  |  May 25, 2010   |  Comments

Even search marketers can be good storytellers. Here's how.

I spend a great deal of my time working with clients and peers on how to tell the right story. Stories have been around since the beginning of time. Society has evolved from hieroglyphics to books, radio, television, and now digital. But the one thing that has never changed in this busy world of media fragmentation is the basic human instinct of wanting to hear a good story. In turn, we love our storytellers. It's a lost art, really. We spend so much time rushing around, texting, tweeting, e-mailing, etc. and less time speaking one on one. Got a problem? Send an e-mail. Got a quick question? Send me a text. The problem with this is that so many of us lack the ability to actually tell a good story. Storytelling is something that isn't just confined to dinner parties and bars, but is something that I think is a lost art in the world, as well as the search world.

During the pitch process or when developing a client presentation, I hear the criticism that search can be too tactical. People say that we focus too much on the individual details of how we will succeed; that we fail to tell a clear story that shows the big picture while connecting the details. I understand this criticism despite the fact that I think search can tell incredibly compelling stories. The problem stems from a few areas. First, we tend to focus on the details; search people perform a very concrete task with a cause and effect. We know it's successful and therefore, we want to talk about all the efforts that make it great.

Secondly, even though search is important, it doesn't sound as sexy. Search people talk about bid management, campaign structure, meta data, and link development. When you focus the story there, it makes it difficult for people to not share. It all sounds very confusing and not overly interesting. I touched on the basics of search storytelling in a previous column, but after attending a few conferences and client meetings over the past month, I thought it appropriate to dig a little deeper into the mechanics of how to be a better storyteller.

You Don't Have a Search Problem

I've spent a lot of time speaking with clients who felt as though they had a search problem. "We don't rank #1," "It's not working," "We don't show up for any of our words." I've determined in each of these issues that it's never really a search problem - it's a business problem. This is the first fundamental flaw in the system. When you focus on fixing the search problem, you end up getting really tactical, really quickly. You have to start with looking at the bigger picture of the business problem and how search can help solve it.

When speaking with a recent client, we brainstormed all the different things impacting their business. We focused not on the tactics, but regarding every problem they've had. Once we gathered this list, we determined which solutions fit where. In this exercise, the client had issues with changing brand perception. They are not in a reputation management situation; they are just in an industry that people don't really think about. From there, we plotted out how search can help solve this. The answer was to take the offsite assets they were already involved in and simply optimize them. This wasn't about getting people to find them, it was about making people see the funny, social side of the company - which was the business problem that search helped solve. If you push your people to solve the problem, the story will naturally evolve.

Forget the ROI and Focus on the Audience

That's right. I said it. The problem that crops up with telling a good story is that you end up focusing so much on a metric that you sometimes forget about the audience's needs. If you are thinking about your audience, you'll spend less time thinking about CPC (define) goals. When you focus on those types of goals, your tactics and, therefore, story go to efficiencies - which is not a good story.

In working with a healthcare client, we had direction to drive to a specific CPC or CPV (cost per view) goal. The goal was achievable, but it required us to optimize a whole segment we thought was important. Our research told us that the caregiver was a key influencer and also needed support. We told a story about how servicing the caregivers will lead to the patient. This will help the client not only acquire patients, but also compliance. This was a story that the client understood and agreed with. It also moved us away from a strict CPC or CPV target. I'm not saying you can't think about ROI (define), but if you focus your story there, you'll be limited in what type of story you can tell.

Stop Using Jargon

The biggest challenge in search storytelling is that we talk in a secret language. We speak engine. We talk about how you need to fix your match types and meta data. This is the equivalent of getting stuck at a party with an engineer. Sure, they're terribly smart, but when discussing their work, your eyes gloss over. Search people tend to do this as well. You have to transform your language into words clients care about. Fixing your meta data isn't the story; reaching the 2 million people who search for your target keyword is. When you focus on jargon you sound more tactical, more technical, and disconnected from my business objectives. When you talk about revenue, customer retention, and untapped value, you're speaking my language.

Wrapping Up This Story

These are just some of the essential elements needed to tell a good story. You still must interject personality, energy, and passion. A good story is only as good as the storyteller. However, if you make sure you focus on telling that story vs. talking about what you do in search, you will be well on your way.

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Joshua Palau

Joshua Palau is the vice president of Search for Razorfish. In this role he is responsible for the global strategy, product development and operations of their paid, organic, and feeds offerings.

He helps clients to understand how search fits into the overall marketing plan and constantly researches the rapidly changing industry to help clients anticipate, and respond to, changes in the landscape.

Joshua is an active writer who has authored several Razorfish POVs on topics such as managing paid and organic search, reputation management, and social search optimization. In addition to writing his SEW column, he serves as the editor of Razorfish's weekly newsletter, Search Marketing Trends.

Joshua began his digital career in 1996 and has a diverse background working on the publisher, client, and agency side. Prior to joining Razorfish, he has worked for Hearst Magazines,, and Johnson & Johnson.

His columns can be found in the Search Engine Watch archive.

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