I’ve heard so many business owners say “I need a…” This comment often comes without context (nor, frankly, understanding of what they actually need or why they need it). People seem to think that growing their business is as simple as doing search engine optimization (SEO), email marketing, or having a great website, or branding, a logo, or better content. Hence the “I need…”

I’m looking to change that conversation.

I’m an old school digital marketer who hails from Silicon Valley (yes, the place that strikes Austinites with dread). In the half-dozen years I’ve lived here, I’ve observed, with a hint of concern, that our freelance economy focuses on catering to perceived needs through task fulfillment, and I don’t think that’s the best paradigm for either the client or for the freelancer.

My personal/professional social media brand is SEO’Brien. I started my career at Yahoo, when Google emerged, and went from there to run online marketing for HP’s eCommerce business, from wherein I developed much of HP’s early search strategy. As a result, nearly 15 years ago, I found the SEO / O’Brien merge to be creative, as well as personally and professionally relevant; without forethought to the implications of building a personal brand, I took ownership of it and it has served me well.

“I need an SEO”

Fast forward, to my move to Austin. Can you guess what struck me most about the differences between the professional communities? Before knowing much about me, people here introduced me as an SEO. It seems obvious given my nom de plume.

So then, why would that strike me as odd? People in Silicon Valley haven’t asked for “SEO” in a decade. “I need an SEO” isn’t part of the discourse there because people long ago started to appreciate that you can’t outsource what needs to be part of the very DNA of a business. That is, they learned to not try to make Google rank their business prominently but instead, operate their business in such a way that Search is taken into account.

Years before moving to Texas I stopped “selling” Adwords and SEO services and started first providing “value.” My personal brand remained, but no longer was my blog personal: it became the medium through which I really learned what marketing meant.

Arriving in Austin, I quickly learned that people still think they “need SEO.” Businesses here think they can engage a freelancer to magically fix their business as inexpensively as possible (while stroking the business owner’s ego by ensuring the brand shows up at the top of Google). I’m not ‘an SEO’ in the same sense that so much of what freelancers are selling is either task-based (logo) or promise-based (results) and neither provides the value that businesses really need. Nor are they the services in which businesses will continue to invest. Instead, I’m a marketing professional who helps companies in need of Venture Capital secure such funding. I happen to have a disproportionate amount of experience with search engines and that makes me particularly valuable to certain businesses.

I define my freelance work in that way for a couple reasons:

  1. As it should be clear, I don’t believe SEO is a distinct thing you can do. It’s not a marketing channel like Adwords or email. Instead, it’s a practice, a behavior, and a way of operating your business that has to be pervasive in everything you do. Frankly, appearing as you desire in search engines is the result of doing good marketing.
  2. I don’t believe that anyone is capable of serving every potential client effectively. I don’t work for small businesses. I don’t work for local business owners. If you’re building a mobile app, find someone else. My specialization is in businesses not just in need of growth but with the potential and desire to scale; those that likely need venture capital. Sure, I can do SEO, build an email campaign, develop a brand, or run Adwords but I’m really only good at such things in the context of specific types of businesses.

“But I Really Do Need Help with SEO”

Setting the stage as such, let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that companies don’t ever need help with SEO.

I’m offering a perspective that what companies need depends on their unique objectives, resources, industry, budget, product or service, and more. What they need to learn is how to embrace how search engines work. They should be conscious of how their PR, social media, content marketing, email, mobile strategy, brand, and user experience impacts how they rank in search. However, if they believe that someone, some agency, can just come in and fix how they appear, they will be disappointed. They don’t need an SEO, they need to understand how search works and they need a marketing strategy, plan, and program that helps them grow their business. How they rank in search may or may not be a part of that strategy.

The difficult challenge for us freelancers to overcome is that we have to be capable of telling businesses what they need to hear—and be willing to do so. We need to be prepared to walk away from those whom we can’t best serve, and refer those opportunities to those who can.

Making our work on behalf of clients even more difficult is that they think they are being specific about their needs, but are rarely operating within the right context. You hear, “I need a WordPress developer who can bring our website to the next level, with an eye for design,” or “I need an SEO who can get us to rank on the top of ‘tacos in Austin.’” And it might even be, “I need a community so we can engage with our customers on our site.” Far too many companies seek a hammer / nail solution to solve their woes.

Here are other examples:

  • Need leads: Where can I buy email addresses?
  • Believe you can control your fans: How do we build an online community?
  • Think you should have more customers from Adwords: We’re looking for a search marketing agency
  • Want a website redesign: Who are the best WordPress developers in town?
  • Feel like your brand is stale: Looking to book a session with a branding expert…
  • Seeking a new logo: Can you recommend a graphic designer?

Business owners aren’t being educated on what they really need because freelancers are too happy to meet their existing expectations rather than setting new expectations properly. In my examples above, the business owner who wants a fresh design would probably really benefit from a consultation with a front-end WordPress designer. For the business owner who wants to rank higher, perhaps a content marketing strategy is what they need. The client seeking a community needs an experienced marketing executive who can effectively address the challenge of engaging with customers—someone who knows the costs, benefits, and implications of every investment they might make to do that most effectively.

SEO is equal parts technology (code, server side, platform, etc.) and marketing. That’s at least two distinct skill sets that rarely are found in one person. Ranking in Google requires all of those things and more: great content, social media, analytics, PR, etc. That usually requires a diverse set of skills. Business owners rarely need an SEO; what they need is someone who can evaluate their online content and marketing and take them to the next level.

To freelancers, I challenge you to start asking prospects some questions:

  • Why do you think ‘SEO’ is what you need?
  • Why do you think ‘SEO’ will fix things?
  • What is SEO as far as you’re concerned?
  • Why are you thinking this is best outsourced?

And then respond with: “Let’s take a look at your data and come up with the right engagement for what you really need.”

In asking those questions you immediately shift your client from looking for a hammer and nail and being task- oriented, to being a trusted advisor, a dependable and more valued ($$) resource, and an enduring (1099) employee.