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August 11, 2017

Building Relationships

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In the digital marketing field, we tend to get really excited about hard data. Analytics, follower counts, CPC, LTV, CTR . . . we geek out on numbers. But effective digital marketing requires more than just numbers. There’s a softer side that many people neglect—to their detriment.

I’m talking about relationships. You can reduce people to numbers, and think of them simply as visitors that are neatly segmented by behavior, demographics, and interests. But people are complex, and losing sight of that fact can hurt your marketing efforts.

We’ll get into a few ways you can start building relationships a bit later on. But before we do that, we need to cover some basics.

What is a relationship?

This question might seem a bit ridiculous, but it’s something you should consider before you start down this path. Because there’s a good chance you’re going to answer it incorrectly.

The typical answer from a marketer seems to be “A relationship is a marketing tool that allows me to gain insight into my target audience and guide my content production process.”

I’ll be frank: that’s a terrible answer. It’s the one we often start with, though, because we’ve been conditioned to see marketing opportunities wherever we can.

Let’s try a less marketing-focused answer: “A relationship is the connection between two people, often created over a bond of mutual interest.”

That’s much better. And if you’re going to succeed in relationship building, it’s the definition you need to run with because people will see through your marketing efforts.

As the Internet becomes more saturated with marketing speak, people are getting better at picking out when you’re actually interested in them. They know when you’re just trying to ingratiate yourself with a community just to market to them.

Truly effective marketers don’t view people as tools, statistics, or resources. They appreciate them as individuals, and seek to build relationships because they share interests, can help each other out, and have the opportunity to learn from each other.

That’s what relationships are built on.

To build the kinds of relationships that are going to help your marketing, you have to stop being a marketer for a moment. It’s counterintuitive, and it can be very difficult. But it’s crucial to your success.

Why you should build relationships with your readers

As I mentioned, your readers are complicated people. They’re multi-faceted, have changing interests and priorities, different experiences, unpredictable whims, and complicated lives.

Reducing a single person into a series of categories is overly simplifying the issue. “26–34 male, married, no kids, upper middle class, interested in motorcycles” reduces a person to five attributes. And people are infinitely more complex than that.

If you’re marketing a motorcycle dealership, just knowing the age, marital status, and economic classification of your potential customers isn’t going to cut it. You need to understand why these people are your target market, and what drives them to your business.

In the above example, “interested in motorcycles” is a huge over-simplification. Why is this particular group of people interested? Are they looking for an efficient mode of transportation? Wanting to hearken back to the days of their late teens? Interested in touring across the country?

These are the types of questions you’ll see in one of the digital marketer’s most trusted tools: the survey. We love surveys. And we convince ourselves that they give us insight into our readers. But those insights aren’t nearly as deep as we like to think. Studies have repeatedly shown that people aren’t very good at identifying their own attitudes and behaviors. So survey data can be a bit suspect.

What are we to do, then? How do SEOs gain insight into their target audience to better understand what they’re looking for?

By building relationships.

Relationships let you see how people talk and behave over an extended period of time, giving you a much better chance of gaining a deeper understanding of what that person thinks, feels and wants. (Ethnographic market studies take this to the next level by spending lots of time with potential customers and getting an absolutely enormous amount of data; but we’ll assume that’s not what you’re going for.)

Interacting with people also reminds you that you’re not marketing to statistics—you’re marketing to people. And when you see those people on a regular basis, you’ll start thinking differently. Instead asking yourself  “What will appeal to my target demographic?” you’ll think “What would get Sarah interested in this content? How would Tamar feel about this writing style?”

And that will help you take your marketing to the next level.

Let’s take a look at how you actually do that.

How to build relationships with readers

Building relationships with your readers isn’t complicated—but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. In short, what you need to do is find out where your target audience hangs out, go there, and engage with them.

There are lots of ways you can engage with readers, but there are three good places to start. I’ll go through them here, with some thoughts on how to get started and a few examples that will help you see what I mean.

While none of these are especially difficult, I’ll go through them in order of increasing complexity.

1. Engage readers on your own site

The comments on your content is a great place to start. It can be tempting to not allow comments on your site, but I urge you to reconsider if you’re leaning this way. Yes, you’ll get some negative comments, and people will say unfair things that could influence other readers.

But the payoff is significantly higher than the risk.

As the traffic to your site increases, more people leave comments, you respond to them, and others chime in with their thoughts, you start building a community. And there’s a reason that ‘community’ is one of the holy-grail words of digital marketing.

A group of people with similar interests that hang out in the same places form stronger relationships and share more information. They also become more dedicated to that community. Not only does this help your marketing efforts, but it’s also a good thing for the Internet at large.

So how do you start engaging with people on your site?

It’s simple: invite and respond to comments. In your content, tell people that you want to know what they think. Ask questions. Let readers know that you’re listening.

And when they leave a comment, respond to it. If they ask questions, provide detailed answers. If they compliment you on your post, thank them and ask about how they plan on using the information you presented. If they share their thoughts on a topic, let them know how that fits in with your ideas.

All of these types of comments will help engage your audience, build rapport, and—eventually, if you’re committed and good at what you do—create community.

Brian Dean is one of my favorite bloggers, and that’s largely is because it’s obvious he actually reads the comments on his blog. Sometimes his responses are a simple thank you, but he also answers questions and offers tips to readers. He shows his readers that they’re appreciated, and that keeps them coming back.

And if you want to see a site with a strong community of readers, just check out Copyblogger. There’s a level of commitment there that’s almost unrivaled by any similar sites. People absolutely love the content, and they love to talk about it with the authors on the site as well as each other.

2. Engage with potential readers on social media

The biggest advantage of building relationships with people who are already coming to your site is that you already know they’re interested in your content. On social media, that’s less the case.

In fact, one of the most significant parts of building relationships over social media is figuring out how to identify people who might be interested in what you’re doing. And that’s not always easy.

Many social analytics tools try to segment people by their interests, and that can help. Finding people who definitely share their interests and meeting people through them is a good way to go, too. And using hashtags on Twitter and Instagram can certainly help.

If you have an account and you follow people that have similar interests, you’re sure to find others to expand your network. Once you figure out who you want to connect with over social media, though, you get to an even harder junction—figuring out how to build that relationship without being immediately dismissed as a pandering marketer.

And that’s really tough. As I mentioned before, you need to put your marketing goals aside when you’re trying to build relationships. Of course, they’re never going to completely disappear . . . which is why it can be difficult to be authentic, personable, and unsalesy.

Don’t post a link to your newest blog post in every tweet. Don’t respond to everyone’s thoughts on Facebook with an explanation of how your product can solve their problem. Just set out to make connections with people. Share your knowledge. Ask people about themselves. Join conversations for the sake of helping people out.

That’s how you build relationships on social media—not by constantly linking to your blog.

If you’d like to see a company absolutely nail their social media presence, check out Innocent drinks (@innocent). They’re consistently funny, likable, and not always marketing on full-blast. They seem genuinely interested in their followers, and they definitely have a lot of fun.

3. Engage with potential readers on other sites

Of the three methods, this can be the most difficult. While people have already often built relationships on social media, there’s often an even deeper sense of community on forums, blogs, and other places where people congregate online. These people may have been talking to each other online for years, have developed strong connections, and are extra wary of anyone trying to co-opt their community space for marketing purposes.

Even more than on social media, successful relationship building through blog comments, forum posts, or Q&A sites like Quora or Stack Exchange come from sharing insightful information.

Again, if you have a resource on your site that helps answer a question in great detail, share it. But make sure that you share other resources, as well. Link to high-quality stuff from other blogs, recommend good social feeds, and so on.

(Yes, this often means linking to your competitors. That’s just how it works.)

This is where a lot of people make mistakes. They find every blog post related to the general topic of their product or service, and post a link in the comments. DON’T USE THIS STRATEGY. Yes, it might get you some links. And it might get you some more visitors. But it’s not going to help you build relationships. If there’s a plausible reason for you to post your link—if you answer a question raised in the content, or you address a concern of one of the commenters—go for it. But only if it really makes sense.

Before you can do this, though, you’ll have to figure out where your readers and potential readers hang out when they’re not on your site. You probably know who your competitors are, so that’s a good place to start. Read comments on their blog posts to see what people talk about, and use that information to find out where else people are getting information on that topic.

Reddit is always a great resource for not only finding people to connect with, but also figuring out where else they hang out. People recommend sites, other forums, and various resources all the time. Search for your topic (and other related topics) to find sub-reddits where potential readers congregate.

Neil Patel, digital marketer extraordinaire, spends time on Quora, and his answers are insanely valuable. They’re almost blog-post-length, and they’re full of great information.

Stop being a marketer for a moment

I know this is difficult—it’s difficult for me, even though I know it—so I’ll say it again:

STOP BEING A MARKETER FOR A MOMENT.

Connect with people on a personal level. Don’t push your product, service, website, or anything else on people. Share useful information, be yourself, and start talking to people.

In the end (which may be a ways down the line), you’ll benefit from it.


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Founder and CEO of Over The Top SEO. He holds broad expertise in the areas of SEO, Social Media, Digital Marketing, B2B, B2C Brand Development and online lead generation.

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