Planning For SEO Success In 2016

digital marketing strategy

A 2015 study by Smart Insights showed that 50 percent of businesses doing digital marketing had no form of digital marketing plan or strategy. They were doing digital marketing, yet there were no clearly defined objectives or goals. Does this seem a little crazy to you?

In our experience helping businesses large and small, we’ve also found that most businesses don’t have a digital marketing plan (or a marketing plan of any kind, in many cases). Unfortunately, smaller local businesses are often the worst offenders here. Micro budgets require a solid ROI, but cutting corners leads to weak results in search marketing.

Failing To Plan Is Planning To Fail

Certainly, the digital landscape is changing at a rate of knots. The digital channels and marketing opportunities are changing so fast that most businesses simply have not responded. Those that have attempted to keep up have an ad hoc approach and simply dive in at a tactical level and throw money at SEO, PPC, display, social and even content marketing.

For many, this scattergun approach fails — and digital itself is questioned as a marketing strategy. This leads to businesses becoming more out of touch and stuck in the sinking ship of yesterday’s marketing methods.

All Of This Has Happened Before, And All Of It Will Happen Again

A few months back, I took a look at the famous military strategy book, “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu, and discussed what lessons are contained within it for marketers. There are many great takeaways from the book, but one quote really sums up the importance of strategy for me:

Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

If we break this down, we are basically saying that a strategy is of no benefit to us if we don’t have a detailed plan or tools to implement that strategy. Equally, if we are applying marketing tactics such as SEO and PPC without an overarching strategy, then we are likely seeing poor results and excessive costs.

This is all pretty obvious — if we just blunder into SEO and PPC focusing on the commercial keywords that we believe to drive our business, then we are focusing on only the hyper-competitive elements and ignoring the bigger picture.

Let me give you a brief example of how assumed strategies and an over-reliance on tactics rather than strategy can lead to poor results.

We have a client that operates the biggest and best paintball and outdoor activity venue in the West Midlands region of the UK (and likely Europe). The business has historically had a roughly 25-mile radius of customers. Over the last 10 years or so, several new venues and large chains have set up shop, and there are now likely 20 other venues in that radius. The search strategy, however, has never changed — and it basically boils down to targeting users looking for paintball in this 25-mile radius. This is done with local SEO on a micro level and PPC on a macro level.

Despite a large spend on PPC and top-of-the-page results in the local and organic listings, paintball business is dwindling. The answer to this been to spend more and more on PPC to continue to target those local and not-quite-so-local customers.

But this is strategically flawed. Anyone who plays paintball regularly will know that this is the best venue in the area (likely the UK, possibly in Europe). These folks know and will go the extra journey. To everyone else simply searching for paintball, the primary factor is location and price. Sure, our client really is better, but every company boasts of greatness online, and prices are much the same across the board.

This strategy of reaching farther and farther afield to convince potential customers to bypass several more conveniently located venues is simply not working, especially for the casual or first-time players.

So how do we tackle this? How do we shift gears? If our research has shown us that location is the key factor, then why not focus on prospective customers within five miles rather than 25 miles? Once we made this shift in thinking, we realised that there are 125,000 people within five miles of the business. Would our marketing be more successful if we focused on building awareness with the local market who don’t currently play paintball, letting local customers know that an amazing day out is literally on their doorstep?

At a tactical level, we will likely use the same channels. But we have made a conceptual change from trying to persuade searchers looking for paintball to drive an extra hour past other venues to raising awareness with the local audience and creating new customers.

The messaging and creative for the campaign is completely different. We will still focus on brand awareness in the larger kill zone and are still highly visible with local users, but we are creating awareness and demand through smart digital advertising.

Without thinking about strategy or reexamining our objectives and goals, we would never have made this tactical change. We would have continued to feed the ever-hungry maw of Google AdWords with continued diminishing results, as the enemy is encamped around us and eating into our historical customer base.

Digital Marketing Planning

Fortunately, there are some proven models and methodologies for digital marketing planning. In the rest of this post, I want to briefly outline the methodologies we have used with customers large and small to improve strategy and boost results of their digital campaigns.


SOSTAC is a marketing methodology developed by PR Smith. The model is useful for developing overarching digital marketing plans and can be used to create an overall strategy or apply at a tactical level.

Situation Analysis — Where are we now?
Objectives — Where do we want to get to?
Strategy — How do we get there, broadly speaking?
Tactics — How exactly do we get there? Which channels?
Actions — Systems, processes, guidelines and checklists.
Control — Measurement and metrics to ensure we are making progress.

Even at a super-high level, asking these questions is hugely valuable. The process — and the insight from a solid situational analysis covering the who, why and how elements of your audience and detailing that into customer profiles — is worth its weight in gold.

(If you are a digital marketing manager and want a structured program to develop an overarching digital marketing plan, then I highly recommend you pick up the SOSTAC book, which is available on Amazon or Kindle.)


Another model that can be utilized to create your entire plan (or determine steps at a tactical level) is the RACE Planning System for Digital Marketing.

RACE is a mnemonic that maps to buyer lifecycle, which stands for:

Reach — Buyer Stage: Exploration
Act — Buyer Stage: Decision making
Convert — Buyer Stage: Purchase
Engage — Buyer Stage: Advocacy

There is an additional step, “Plan,” that sits before “Reach,” but I guess that PRACE is not quite so memorable!

Plan. At the planning stage, we take a look at opportunities, strategy and actions. This is similar in many ways to the Situation Analysis stage of SOSTAC. At this stage, we need to define customer personas, review the marketplace and competition and craft an online value proposition. This is then fed into the specific channels to distribute our digital marketing communications.

Reach. To reach our customers, we must ensure visibility across search engines, social media and relevant blogs and content hubs. Reach is brand awareness covering paid, earned and owned media. We reach customers on search engines using SEO and PPC. We reach users on social networks with content and social advertising. We reach users across our niche by publishing content on the sites where our customers reside.

Act. Act is lead generation, the process of persuading site visitors to take the next step and get in touch. This may include soft goals like downloading a white paper or signing up for a newsletter. Most visitors to business websites don’t interact, so it’s important to clearly review why this is. What can you do to push for those interactions and build your relationship with your prospect? Utilizing detailed goal tracking in tools like Google Analytics is hyper-important here to understand what is working and iterate your approach.

Convert. This is the important interaction, and as such is defined separately. This is a sale or qualified sales lead. This is the primary goal. It is also where we start our journey with a customer.

Engage. Here, we want to build on that initial conversion and build a long-term relationship with our customer. We want to sell other services. We want to retain that customer over the long term. We want to keep that customer happy and maximize the lifetime value of that customer. We also want to drive advocacy and ensure our happy customers become part of our marketing arsenal through reviews, social shares and referral.

RACE To The Finish Line

I particularly like RACE as a starting point for a more strategic approach, as it is so easy to apply to a single channel like SEO, or even Local SEO. Diving in with a high-level overview like SOSTAC is a worthy exercise but can take some time and resources to do well. It can also be overkill for small businesses simply wanting improved local visibility.

RACE, on the other hand, scales up and down — so as a jump-in point for a more strategic approach, it tends to be a more sensible starting point.

We don’t want to race into strategy and run out of steam before we reach the finish line. Starting small and seeing the results only aids in getting a greater buy-in for more comprehensive planning and measurement.

The Importance Of Strategy And Planning

It is simply not possible to provide a complete overview of these processes in a single blog post, but my goal here is to illustrate the importance of strategy and identify a few methodologies we have used at Bowler Hat to help customers large and small across the UK. I welcome your feedback on Twitter and LinkedIn and can cover any of these topics in more detail in a future post.

For digital marketing managers, I strongly recommend looking into both of these models, and I would love to hear of any frameworks or models you have used for digital marketing planning within your own organizations. From local businesses to SMEs and startups, SOSTAC and RACE provide a structured way to plan, measure and improve your digital marketing.

Here’s to a more strategic approach to SEO and Digital Marketing in 2016.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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