Thursday, February 27, 2014

SEO Brand Review: Bonobos

A few weeks ago we wrote about the changing nature of brand loyalty. To recap: for decades, brands have "coasted on past performance" (as James Surowiecki's wrote in "The End of Brand Loyalty"), but the Internet changed everything.  Customers, Surowiecki wrote, once toiled in an "information poor environment" and "brands served as proxies for quality," but the Internet
"has given ordinary consumers easy access to expert reviews, user reviews, and detailed product data, in an array of categories."

In this environment, we noted, the goal of organic SEO dovetails perfectly with the aspirations of the best brands: to deliver the best experience for the customer; or, to be more specific: to deliver "a quality customer experience engendered by a blazing fast website with relevant content."

In both cases, the operative word here is "experience." A brand is not simply about its product--or goods. Customer service, the website's ease-of-use, and price-points just might be more important than the brand's goods. An online brand's success, in fact, is often entirely determined by customer experience.

The true "product," then, is not merely the goods, but the experience + the goods.

The recent struggles of the online clothing company, Bonobos, proves this point.

Before we discuss this particular case, though, let's clarify the role of SEO in delivering the best customer experience.

Although the very name implies as much, to say that SEO--search engine optimization--is merely about "search" is a misnomer. Yes, many browsers, and even many SEO companies, operate under this limited view. You've likely received spam-type emails from some of these companies, promising first page placement on Google or any number of odd claims.

For example, we recently received an email from a company called Websquash, promising a "Worry free solution!" To what? We're still not entirely sure. But in atrocious writing that renders the Websquash offering only barely legible, the email continues:

"1000 best hand picked directories on the web. Don't miss! we have a team of experts who will handle your website directory submission to 1000 handpicked directories and provide detailed report on completion."

The first thing we notice about this email is, indeed, the horrid writing. The writing itself makes us highly suspicious of the Websquash "team of experts." Dig a little deeper, though, and you will see that this is essentially a link-building scheme. Despite Google's best attempts to dissuade this sort of behavior, companies continue to try to manipulate search results with link-building.

Now, most people would delete this email outright. So no harm done, right?

Well, for an experienced organic SEO professional the harm is quite tangible! This type of email perpetuates the misnomer that SEO is all about search--and worse, that its practitioners are charlatans slinging poorly-written solutions that make little sense.

This hurts the industry, and it hurts the professionals who fight to practice SEO with integrity.

SEO practiced with integrity is about so much more than search. A true SEO professional understands that connecting customers and companies via search is only part of the job. The real job is creating a web experience that transforms visitors into repeat-customers. In the SEO community, we call this "conversion." In short, the best SEO professionals work as marketing consultants to ensure that a company is offering the best online experience, and this work touches on all aspects of the experience, from a website's good to its customer service and prices.

We've written about the clothing brand, Bonobos, before on this blog, and for good reason. For years they've exemplified the best of a positive online experience. Of course, they've nailed it with their products--the best-fitting pants, and now shirts, suits, and more. But they've really made a name for themselves with their exemplary customer service (as practiced by their famed "ninjas"), their unique referral system, and their groundbreaking FREE shipping, FREE returns policy.

Yes, free shipping and free returns is becoming more common, but Bonobos was an early pioneer of the practice, especially in the #menswear world. This is why the #menswear world went wild recently when Bonobos decided to start charging for shipping.

The change was noted subtly on Bonobos' website, but was then shouted from the rooftops on Reddit's popular "Frugal Male Fashion" thread and on various blogs, most notably the ever-popular Dappered. The comments on both were numerous and thoughtful, and most seemed to echo the sentiments of AirGuitarHero on Dappered:

"Kind of a bummer, I wish they could be profitable without having to cut all the things that make them great."

All the things that make them great.

In its, frankly, bad decision-making, Bonobos apparently neglected the very brand experience that made it so popular in the first place. Free shipping and free returns had always been a cornerstone of the brand. This is how, early on, Bonobos overcame people's apprehension about buying online without first trying on clothes: they made the experience risk-free!

Now, beyond charging for shipping, Bonobos seemed to alienate its very customer base--the casual browsers whom they had long ago worked so hard convert to dedicated customers.

We actually added to the comments on the Dappered thread, wondering, aloud, "Remember when a Bonobos ninja actually used to show up on comment-threads like this to offer the Bonobos perspective? Seems telling that we don't see anything like that anymore."

We were surprised, then, to receive a reply from a Bonobos Ninja two days later:

"Hey Seth," Adam, a Senior Ninja, wrote:

"Thanks for speaking up. Crucial as we roll this type of policy out.

This thread has had the serious attention of not only the Ninjas, but of the entire company. Cannot even begin to tell you how valuable this feedback is. Any lack of speaking up from a Ninja side only is a result of us really wanting to digest the scope of the opinions being shared here and in our personal email queue. Two days of digesting these really well thought out comments/emails has been enormously helpful, and beyond anything has reinstated the fact that we have a pretty boss customer base.

Just for the sake of emphasis, we really are appreciative of these comments, and will continue to listen intently and update customers if need be. Transparency continues to be the name of the game, but we don't want to offer it haphazardly!"

Now Bonobos must've heard a lot of feedback over those two days, and we're pretty sure that a lot of that feedback spoke to brand loyalty and brand experience. Many loyal customers, including yours truly, considered a brand boycott.

In the end, the deluge of comments led Bonobos to reconsider its policy. This week the brand announced, on the website and in personal emails to customers, that it would once again offer free shipping.

Reddit and Dappered announced the news quite quickly, and the very first comment on the Dappered post, from a certain Marc, echoed the new sentiments of the crowd: "Blame it on the Dappered effect."

The lessons here are plentiful, and all brands would do well to heed them. Do not alienate your customers! Maintain the integrity of your brand. More importantly, maintain the integrity of your customer's brand experience.

A less apparent lesson, but one that seems quite obvious to any observer of the SEO world, is this: do not assume you control the conversation about your brand.

In today's world, the customer has all the power. In terms of popularity, Reddit and Dappered could easily enter the first page results for a simple search on "Bonobos." A true SEO professional is attentive to these results, but he/she is also attentive to the conversation that inspires these results. You want to make sure that your brand is inspiring positive conversations and stellar reviews. SEO is not merely about search results. It's about creating the best possible experience.