How to explain the value of SEO to executives
Today’s Growth Memo answers a question from loyal reader Nilesh:
“How do you explain the value of SEO to C-suite executives and senior managers?”
This is a question I get from ICs and mid-level managers all the time. Until I became an executive, I had many opportunities to practice talking to and thinking like one. Then, as Vice President at G2 and Director at Shopify, I had the chance to experience the other side.
Nilesh’s question is important. Not getting buy-in and funding from leadership is a guaranteed fail state for SEO - and any other marketing discipline. This problem is not exclusive to SEO.
Funding and buy-in from leadership are critical because most impactful activities
are not free. Even SEO just has a very low marginal cost but still takes resources. Someone still needs to fund headcount, tools and content/data.
needs support from teams like design, data and engineering to have impact. Leaders need to allocate capacity to where they think it has the biggest impact.
can take time to show results. Without leadership buy-in, it’s hard to get long-term commitment from supporting teams.
Explaining the value of something is a pitch, and most people don’t know how to do it well. The problem is you only learn this skill when you’re at that level - a chicken & egg problem - or when someone shows you how to do it.
In this Memo, I answer Nilesh’s question by explaining how weak arguments and not addressing what executives care about sets you up for failure and how to use 12-slide decks and strategic narratives to pitch executives to sponsor (SEO) initiatives.
3 reasons why pitches to executives fail
Explaining the value of SEO to executives is a pitch, and you can’t land a pitch without understanding the perspective of the people you’re trying to convince.
Let’s start with what executives care about: revenue, market share and growth. Everything else - hiring, subject matter expertise, leadership, etc. - is a means to these three ends.
Now, let’s consider the circumstances under which they operate. Executives live in a world where attention is scarce but information abundant. They’re usually in back-to-back meetings, have high pressure to perform and always need to erase at least one fire. That forces them to filter any incoming information for red and green flags.
Metrics not related to revenue, market share and growth
Uncertainty, doubt, skepticism
Big claims without data to support them
Revenue, market share, growth
Clearly articulated problems with proposed solutions that need an executive decision
SEOs are nerdy people (that’s a compliment!) who like to geek out about technical problems. Executives don’t care about that. They immediately tune out when they spot Red Flags.
Instead, we need to focus on green flags when pitching executives the value of SEO. Any argument you bring needs to roll up to revenue, market share and growth and answer the following questions
Is the impact significant?
What resources do you need?
When can you deliver results?
What are the returns?
Do we have a plan to move forward?
What are the assumptions we operate under?
The way to roll SEO problems up to the three core topics executives care about (revenue, market share, growth) is by making a projection from traffic to revenue (or at least, # conversions). It’s not going to be perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. No business projection is perfect (look at the guidance for quarterly reports).
I describe the process of revenue projecting in detail in The Roi of SEO. The core idea is
Defining the set of keywords affected by the problem or opportunity
Multiplying their search volume with a realistic CTR for the target position (=expected traffic)
Multiplying expected traffic with an average conversion rate (=# conversions)
Multiplying the number of conversions with an average conversion value
Let’s say, for example, you’re an e-commerce site and found an opportunity to optimize category pages. Now, you want to take all keywords that category pages rank for and project traffic, # conversions (sales) and conversion value (average order value). The resulting revenue to be made is what executives truly care about.
But it’s not enough to just present the strategy. Executives always drive toward a decision. Any problem they’re being presented with needs to come down to a “yes” or “no”. The easier you make it for them to get there, the higher your chances they say “yes”.
Pitching executives: 12-Slide Decks and Strategic Narratives
The format you pitch in is just as important as the pitch itself. Picking the right one is a matter of company culture: some communicate in decks, others in written docs (usually Google Docs at tech companies).
Popularized by Amazon’s famous “Six Pagers”, more companies lean on written narratives instead of slide decks these days. As described in Colin Bryar and Bill Carr’s book Working Backwards, written narratives provide more context, allow meeting participants to comment, and don’t rely on the presenter rehearsing the deck. Most importantly, written narratives force the presenter to be clear and concise, which is much easier to avoid in a slide deck.
In my mind, the optimal structure for Strategic Narratives comes from Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle:
The idea of the Pyramid Principle is to separate writing from thinking. Before putting pen to paper, get clarity about the situation, problem, and solution. Then, ask yourself what important questions need to be answered and cover them in the FAQ section of the narrative. In fact, coming up with questions and answering them is one of the most effective ways to discover ideas.
In a strategic narrative, the situation should cover where the site/company is today and where it could be (eg “x USD incremental revenue from SEO with more funding”). Be clear about why the company could be somewhere else and what lead it to be where it is today. In the complication, show what obstacles need to be overcome (eg “no resources to create content”) to get to the desired future state. The obstacles need to make logical sense. A big part of Minto Pyramids is reasoning up, instead of simply describing. The solution should outline how to get there (eg “invest x USD” or “hire 2 full-time employees”). The FAQ answers questions that came up anywhere along the first three steps.
Amazon Six Pagers have a press release at the beginning, which I think is only a good idea when pitching new products or features. Strategies, however, don’t need it.
In the startup world, investor pitches typically come in the form of 12-Slide Decks. We can use the same format for pitching strategies to executives. Again, pick what fits your company culture.
The typical pitch structure of a 12-Slide Deck (added modifications for strategic decks in parentheses):
Offering (how the strategy fits the company)
Market (who and how many)
Traction (proof of concept)
Business Model (how does it impact the bottom line)
Team (current resources and resource ask)
Financials (current budget and budget ask)
Ask (anything else, or add resource and financials asks here instead of under #10 and #11)
Good strategic slide decks immediately capture the audience with a strong punchline, addressing potential revenue, market share or growth. Keep it to one argument per slide and simplify graphs to a minimum. Most slides are way too cluttered with information and hard to parse. Use color coding, annotations and simple data points to make slides easy to grok.
Don’t be shy in the appendix. The challenge of 12-Slide Decks is keeping it short and bringing it to the point in the first 12 slides, but you can stuff the appendix like a Thanksgiving Turkey.
Before, during and after the pitch meeting
You don’t have a lot of shots pitching the value of SEO. Once executives have made up their minds, they’re hard to change. You need to make pitches count.
Before the meeting:
Send the narrative or deck in advance as a pre-read (min 24h)
Add an agenda to the calendar invite
Rehearse the meeting and document
Prepare for questions (more below)
During the meeting
Take notes (or appoint a note taker)
Keep the meeting on track
Lay out the exact decision executives need to make in the meeting and drive towards clear next steps
After the meeting:
Send an email / Slack thread summarizing the meeting, next steps and action items
Follow up a few weeks after the meeting, keeping all participants informed about progress
Preparing for potential questions is vital. Think about what questions could come up, get ready to be interrupted during the meeting and add answers to the appendix or FAQ.
Typical questions from executives:
If we invest more money, what can we expect back?
Are we missing out on a big opportunity?
Does the growth of SEO outpace other channels?
How do we stack up against competitors, and should we care?
Do we have a clear plan to achieve the goal?
What’s blocking us?
Why can’t we get there sooner?
What are the risks and downsides?
And the most important question you need to answer… “How can I help?”
The best way to help executives see the value and support SEO is a well-crafted pitch. The pre-requisite is understanding the filters executives use for information and how they make decisions. Everything you present must address revenue, market share or growth.
The best way to pitch is to prepare and present a written narrative or slide deck, depending on what best fits your company’s culture. In either format, capture the situation, complication, solution and most important questions to drive toward a yes/no decision from executives.