Digital marketing is a culture of success. It is a culture where we all strive to hit monthly goals and write boastful guest blogs about the time we totally rocked a client’s socks off. It is a culture that “Asks you to judge us not by our winners, but our losers, because we have so few,” to paraphrase Jordan Belfort in “Wolf of Wall Street.”

But the world of SEO is one where you are constantly walking a knife’s edge. At any given time, the 800-pound gorilla that is Google can sweep success away within a day. Every one of us has tangled with Penguin and Panda, survived Mobilegeddeon and have been befuddled by sudden dives in traffic and/or ranking for no apparent reason.

An old wise man that was fond of clichés once said, “How you handle failures says more about your character than how you handle success.” How you handle emergencies, downturns and outright failure in the digital marketing space will often determine your future success with clients.

Here are the 3 ways I have handled the unexpected in the past.

1. Check Everything Twice, Then Check a Third Time

I have a rule that holds true for both earthquakes and unexpected drops in a website’s traffic and ranking: It will happen either in the middle of the night, or on a weekend, and then be proceeded by a panicked phone call. When it is an earthquake, the call is from my mom; when it is a drop in ranking and traffic it is a client.

Never leap to the obvious conclusion even if the conclusion is obvious. I learned this through a triumphantly stupid oversight in my own career. One day I discovered that organic traffic for this particular client had cratered almost overnight. I knew there was a pretty significant issue. This was right around the launch of a Penguin algorithm update so my mind immediately latched onto Penguin as the probable traffic drop.

I went through a whole round of checks and nothing made sense other than a Penguin penalty. The dates even lined up with the drop in traffic. So I began the tedious process of digging through backlinks.

Two days into that process I got a call from the client’s in-house web developer. He mentioned, in casual conversation, that he had done some sort of mysterious “maintenance” to the site and “accidentally” uninstalled the Google Analytics tracking code from the site. I needed that right? Yeah, I said, I kind of need that.

I am sure there is someone who is reading this right now and chuckling. The moral of the story for me was clear: check everything. Then double check. Then triple check it.

Even when the most obvious solution presents itself, check the least obvious solutions, too.

2. Fess Up When You Mess Up

Everyone screws up, everyone gets it wrong, everyone misses something from time to time. The best bloggers will occasionally make a typo they do not catch. The best copywriters make third grade grammatical errors on bad days. The best social media manager will put the wrong photo on the wrong Facebook post from time to time.

Ideally, you have outlined processes that catch 99% of the mistakes before they ever reach the client’s eyes. What happens to that .01% though? How do you address it?

My answer is shockingly simple. Tell the truth. Take responsibility. Say the words, “I messed up.”

Honesty is the best policy simply because it runs counter to everyone’s expectations. Everyone expects to be given the run-around, everyone expects to wait four hours on the phone, everyone expects a situation to eventually be resolved without anyone ever taking responsibility for it. No one really expects to be told, “Yes, I messed up. We’ve fixed the typo, the grammatical error, the photo. I apologize.”

Want to lose clients? Treat them like the cable company treats you. Want to earn clients respect and trust? Admit your mistakes.

3. Be Proactive

The best way to deal with a marketing emergency is to get out in front of it before it becomes an emergency. Taking control of a potential crisis early allows you to demonstrate value and core competency to your client.

I have made checks for duplicate content and spammy links a standard part of my onboarding process followed by a report to my client for both. Why? First and foremost, this allows me to get running start on potential Panda and Penguin issues down the road. Second, this allows me to show a new client an instant value and competency.

When a site takes an unexpected turn for the worse? First call is to a client to alert him or her that I am aware of the problem and working on both a “why” and a solution (when a solution presents itself). It shows a client that you are concerned, active and engaged. It also opens up a dialogue about the actions you may need to take to address a particular problem.

Client relationships are the same as any other kind of relationships. They are built on foundations of trust, honesty and openness. A crisis or misstep can test a relationship but if that relationship has been built on a solid foundation it will not falter.

Which strategies work for you? Please let me know in the comments.

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Larry MadillLarry Madill is a freelance writer and content marketing consultant, based in Los Angeles, California. You can follow him on Twitter @larrymadill.
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