I started this piece when I was wondering out loud, “Good SEO and Good Storytelling: Can we have both?”, and I gotta tell you, I was skeptical.
As I worked through it in this blog post, I discovered that the short answer is YES, yes we can. Purists on either side will argue, “Yeah, but…” Okay, let’s leave perfection aside and move forward in doing the best we can with the skill set we have focusing on what is in our control.
Why was I feeling that they might not play together well?
Primarily, it’s the flow; the movement of the story as it attempts to draw in its intended audience.
Written words manifest a recognizable cadence.
A good story has a certain flow.
I like the “feel-good” and romance stories. The cadence has an easy, light flow, maybe with a hint of mystery, infectious enthusiasm, familiarity, or element of intrigue that keeps me reading to the next sentence, paragraph, and chapter.
On the other end of the spectrum are stories that are more serious; tall tales of ghouls, human-hungry sharks (baddum baddum), heroes in other Galaxies, chronicles of serial killers, and the like. Those written words also have a recognizable cadence that facilitates the reader’s comprehension and connection to the story.
The stories that I’m wondering about in this article are the online stories written for business purposes.
I asked Amanda Grazioli, Professional copywriter & brand messaging consultant, for her thoughts about good storytelling and good storytelling online for business purposes. She explains,
“The human brain is wired for story. When our emotions and senses are involved in processing new information, we remember it more clearly and for longer.
“Strong brand storytelling on your website can help you connect with your customers on an emotional level, helping you to authentically gain their attention and build trust.
“Much like a great fairytale, storytelling for the web needs to have certain components like specific details, three-dimensional characters, and a plot (the before state, the transformation, and the outcome). But instead of merely engaging or entertaining, stories in your web copy need to serve a specific business purpose.
“That purpose might be to highlight your commitment to a particular value, building a bridge between you and your customer. Or, you might use a story to show how a person just like your reader avoided pain and achieved great things thanks to your product or service.
“Regardless, story is being used to lay the necessary groundwork for the reader to confidently take your desired action—whether that’s subscribing to emails, making a purchase, or booking a call.”
An SEO-powered piece has a different flow.
In my brain, the choice, order, and placement of the words that appeal to the search engines break the good storytelling cadence (cue fingernails across the chalkboard) and that is what I am exploring in this blog post.
To me, an SEO-powered content has always felt a little stiff, a little jaggedy. We add specific words in a specific order in specific places in order to guide the search engines to greater understanding of who we are, what we offer, and how clients benefit from working with us. It’s unemotional and formulaic work.
In addition to writing a good business story, you want To recap, we want to attract the search engines so that they send traffic in our direction – and – we want the content to be so entertaining that readers become our advocates; sharing the story, signing up for our newsletter, returning regularly to read new posts, etc.
Why are the flows different? Well, the two approaches have different target audiences.
Writing to capture the interest of different audiences is typically accomplished through writing various versions of the same article. You may be familiar with marketing strategy and creating personas [https://www.ama.org/buyer-persona-tool/]. The reason we create buyer personas is that we will write content in a way that appeals to that specific persona. Writing to a specific persona changes the words we use and in changing the words, we change the flow.
In this case, one of the personas is a search engine, an inanimate object that cannot do complex thinking. The requirements to help a search engine understand our message and purpose for writing the piece are different from helping a person understand the same.
For the search engines, the infrastructure of the story and the markup of the content rise in importance. [Article on Matryoshka dolls]
You might be thinking, “Why should I care about the search engines? I’m networking and engaging on social media all the time.”
I hear you. The thing is that the search engines have the power to bring us hordes of prospects; many, many more than we could ever drive to our websites on our own. This is not just my opinion. Every Google expert that I have heard speak on the matter over the last 15 years has affirmed that Google (a search engine) will always drive more traffic to your website than any other source. The challenge for us is to provide the right information about us in a format that the search engines understand.
When we do that:
- The search engines lead increasing numbers of visitors to our websites.
- The increased traffic can increase our readership.
- Increased readership leads to greater visibility, and with greater visibility, we have greater opportunity to convert readers to clients.
Pretty good trend.
Why am I even wondering this?
Well, I’ve been adding SEO and teaching on-page SEO for over 15 years. SEO involves rules, algorithms, and statistics, and can be scary to many DIYers. But, the common thread in those rules, algorithms, and statistics are WORDS- and that is where I focus: using “the right words in the right order in the right places”.
Using “the right words in the right order in the right places” shifts the quality of the traffic you bring to your website. General traffic is replaced with traffic by a highly-targeted audience of high-probability prospects. High-probability prospects are ready to buy and that improves your probability of making a sale and, consequently, increasing your conversion rate.
That said, each organization wants to boast of high readership. High readership is achievable through providing content that readers enjoy so much they want to share it. And we know from all our marketing courses that telling a story is the best way to capture our readers’ attention. Storytelling, when done well, makes the message or the lesson memorable.
I’m writing today about two approaches to writing content that have caused my brain unrest. I feel out of balance when thinking about applying tactics for both to the same piece of content.
One approach includes tactics for telling a good story that appeals to and keeps the interest of my target audience, and the other approach employs tactics that attract and educate the search engines so that they accurately rank my web pages and send me my high-probability prospects.
And, then I think, “What if the search engines didn’t just bring us more traffic? What if the search engines brought us more of our high-probability prospects?”
An increase in traffic is an increase in “general” visitors. “General visitors” includes some that will become our clients, but many more who are tire kickers and who are not really interested in our content. High-probability prospects are ready to buy.
How do we reach our high-probability prospects? By using the right words in the right order in the right places.
Which words are those?
Well, the first thing I can tell you is that the words are not the same for everybody. I mean the words are not the same for everybody in your industry and even in your business segment.
The right words for you are the words that describe the work that you truly want to be doing day in and day out. And even though there are people in the same business segment, their focus within that segment is just a little bit different than your focus.
One tip I share with my clients about how to choose the best words for them is to, “Think of the search engines as your salaried sales staff”. You educate your salespeople so that they can work efficiently. You give them specific details about the characteristics and behavior of your most desired customer. In doing that, you teach them how to discern between tire kickers and high-probability prospects. Armed with that information, the salespeople make in-the-moment decisions about how much time to spend engaging the person with whom they are currently communicating.
Educate the search engines in the same way. Take the words and phrases you shared with your sales staff and use those when writing content.
So here we are in this situation where we need to write one piece of content that appeals to two distinct audiences, and the guidelines for writing to engage each audience are different.
Can we meld the rules to produce content that is equally attractive to humans and to search engines?
This next paragraph is out of place why is it here?
My take on it is that since we are making the effort to write an article or blog piece demonstrating our expertise in certain topics, why not style the piece for optimum reader enjoyment and consumption, and at the same time, add some techniques that attract and inform the search engines?
The search engine spokespeople assure us that if we structure our content for the best human understanding, the content will automatically be in the best format for SEO readability and comprehension.
Really? I don’t know…maybe you have doubt like me? [Before I learned the power of the SEO techniques I now teach] I had written blog posts and articles that I spent a lot of time crafting and was really proud of. I felt they were good stories for my audience and in good SEO structure. But… I don’t feel that I was always rewarded for my hard work. The search engines never liked the content as much as I did, and, consequently never used the content to bring me the volume of traffic that I would have expected.
Okay, so let’s do this!
- Craft an enjoyable reading experience for our human audience, and
- Provide proper information to attract and educate the search engines.
What would my process to accomplish those two goals look like?
From the 10,000-foot view, I would start with writing a story using good storytelling techniques and then overlay the story with good SEO tactics.
What are Good Storytelling Techniques?
We know that all stories need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Within that broad structure, Amanda Grazioli suggests that stories for your business website need to be:
- Relatable. The reader has to see themselves and their struggles/goals in the story.
- Purposeful. There needs to be a clear business objective for the story (building brand affinity, showing a use case for a product/service, demonstrating a positive result from a past customer to prompt sales or inquiries).
- Concise. Editing is key. Attention spans are brief. Every word needs to count.
- Real. Your authentic brand voice and personality need to come through
- Well-formatted. Story needs to be broken up visually using whitespace, H2 subheaders, images, etc. to be scannable/digestable.
- Paired with a CTA. There should be Call to Action button/link on the same page as the story, and the action should support the story.
[something here for non-fiction structure]
Inside those sections, in order to develop the plot and characters, there is:
- Exposition – Intro
- Rising Action – Problem/Issue
- Falling Action
- Resolution – Wrap it up
In order to bring the readers along on the journey to the end, we need characters they care about and a plotline that piques their interest.
While developing the plot, if you are writing non-fiction, a persuasive piece, or a piece that educates your audience for a future purchase, along with considering why you are writing the piece and what you hope to accomplish, consider your audience’s intention in readying the piece? Who is the audience for this piece (Look back at your personas). What does the audience hope to get out of reading your piece?
The Reader’s Intention
Understanding your audience’s intention in reading your story helps you:
- Sculpt the information and events in a way that meets their intentions, creating a pleasant user experience
- Helps you have a clear definition for the marketing efforts.
Nowadays, pleasant user experiences tend to lead to social adulation. That creates enduring social proof that can lead to greater readership, and that can lead to more buzz, and so on and so on.
So, is your audience reading this to educate themselves, have a fun reading experience, make a purchase decision, or some other purpose?
The perspective and phraseology used in composing the piece will change according to their intention [personas]. [link to an article or more research on this aspect].
Using this basic structure, we develop a story outline.
Let’s Regroup – What are we trying to do?
We are trying to balance proper storytelling structure and components with SEO structure and components, your intention for writing the content with the audiences’ intention for reading it, and, let’s throw in some emotion tugging that leads the reader to the next part!
See what I mean? Gone are the old days when we could write a blog post in 10 minutes!
So how do we get it done?
This is the approach I will take.
- My purpose: Define my reason for writing the content. What topic will I write about and what do I hope to accomplish?
- The Audience: Who needs to read it? Audience’s purpose: What will the audience do with the content? My point of view is impacted by the audiences’ intention for reading the content.
- Outline major ideas/concepts – what is the storyline?
- Write paragraphs of information for each outlined bullet point
- Size: Confirm that the paragraphs are in digestible chunks.
- Order/Flow: Rearrange the chunks, confirming that the information is in logical order flowing easily from one to the other.
- Emotion: Reread each bucket evaluating its potential for keeping the audience’s attention and creating a desire in them to continue reading. Rephrase the words in order to pique interest or twang the heart plant. Have you created an emotional thread?
- SEO – Reread each bucket evaluating it for the potential to use words that my high-probability prospects would use to find me when doing a search. Can I rearrange words or add a sentence to the paragraph and still maintain a sense of wonder that implores the audience to learn what happens next?
- SEO – Add Headings. Chapter headings, sub chapter headings.
- SEO – Highlight important words in bold. This helps readers understand the flow, gives clues about what’s happening next, and provides rest breaks for the eyes.
- SEO – Related words and terms – semantic writing
|Helps Search Engines|
|Headings: Sections, Chapters, Subtitles||Yes||Yes|
|Article / Post Title||Yes||Yes|
|Keyword phrases mixed with restated phrases mixed with semantically-related phrases||Yes||Yes|
|Clearly stating your intention||Yes||Yes|
|Words that evoke emotion||Yes||No|
|Article / Post URL||No||Yes|