I frequently advise clients that the secret to successful search engine optimization is to have content that people really want to find. And, beyond SEO, the secret to a successful site is that the same content makes prospective buyers want to read it, and it persuades them to buy what you are selling. It sounds simple, and for some companies, it is simple, but we often make things more complicated than they are. I find that small and large companies each struggle with this question of what story to tell, but they struggle in different ways.

Large companies always ask me, "How do I decide which story to tell? We have so many stories that I can't choose." Small companies ask me, "But what can I say? We're just a little company and no one will care."

John Steinbeck on Story telling...

Image by Jill Clardy via Flickr

Both of these questions miss the point, because they presuppose that each question actually has a correct answer. Neither one does.

These questions are a lot like asking, "What should I talk about with my spouse at dinner?" You could drive yourself nuts by reminding yourself that so many things happened to you today that it's hard to choose what the most important thing is. Or you could torment yourself in the opposite direction by noting that your spouse knows you so well that nothing you could say would ever be novel enough to be interesting. Somehow, however, most of us figure out how to muddle through dinner without complete silence.

Your customers aren't so demanding that you need to tell the perfect story. Or even have a perfect story. When we throw up these roadblocks, we are really retreating into the comfortable world of product specs and special offers where we can spew data without really connecting with another person. It feels safer and it takes a lot less thought.

The problem is that everyone's data sounds pretty much the same.

Take what you might think of as a breakthrough product, the original iPod. If you look at the specs, it doesn't sound much different than any other MP3 player, but it was revolutionary because of the story that could be told around it. Finally, a simple piece of technology than anyone could use to take music on the go. And because the product delivered on the story, the product sold really well and people retold the story over and over.

What is the story that your customer cares about? What problem do you solve? How do you entertain them? How do you make their lives a little better? Tell that story.

It doesn't have to be your best story. It doesn't have to be the most interesting story told in the most riveting fashion. What it does need to be is true. It helps if the story reveals a little about what your company and your employees are like. Your story needs to be relevant to your customer. And it needs to be something they will care enough about to act on and to tell to others.

You might not happen upon that good a story in your first try. Keep trying. Keep checking to see which stories get more attention and garner more sales. What do they have in common? Do more of that.

Eventually, you'll become more comfortable with this new style of marketing. It might never feel as safe as "Call now and get, free. and ice crusher!" but that's OK. When we stop talking at our customers and start talking to them, or even with them, our marketing will suddenly start being a little more like talking to our spouse over dinner. It's those kind of customer relationships that we need to develop and keep. (Hey, at least I never used the word, "nurture.")

September 20, 2010

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


A story is a powerful, and that is why most people read blogs in the first place; something they can relate and connect to. This inspires me make sure my posts tell the story of me and my company.

Great post Mike. Make the story simple and understandable.Ensure that the story is true so that it gains the trust of visitors. They will enjoy reading the story and will spread the same through their communities.

This statement made me laugh: "But what can I say? We're just a little company and no one will care." Yes, I can really relate to it. So, what will make us small businesses stand out there? Is it just okay to focus on quality content? Is it all about being real with your readers/fans/followers/customers? I'd say 'all of the above' plus being a though leader in your industry. Most newfangled concepts out there aren't new at all; they we're just given a face lift and called something else, like a lot of business innovations take 10% out of what's successful out there and revamping it to make it even better.

Thanks for the comment, Aaron. You're right that we sometimes hold ourselves to a hopelessly high standard of what we think is good enough--so high that it paralyzes us from doing anything. Instead, as you point out, just be yourself and hope it is good enough. If your customers already like you enough to be your customers, I bet that says something positive about what they think when you share your story with them. Just make sure that the story is about them and not about you.

Thanks Mike,
It is important that business whatever its size understands the discursive element of the web as it exists today. Do you have any good examples of the above to share?

Each one has a story to tell and uniquely too even if its about the same thing or the same event. Each person looks at each event or thing at different angles or different perspective. So I really think there's not one perfect story because each story is unique. There might be a door, a person would want to describe the knob, the other one describes the material used and so on and so forth. We can never run out of stories to tell.

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Search Engine Guide > Mike Moran > For SEO, you need a story to tell