SEO for good: Why the debt sector needs to get better at ‘hacking’ humans online

Lexi Mills is CEO of Shift6 Global; an international digital growth consultancy, and President of The Future of Search Foundation. Her research work focuses on the opportunities, ethics and risks of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI) within the sector of internet search.

Jan 26

In my marketing and PR work, I combine technical search algorithm knowledge and psychology to create data-driven, measurable communications strategies that maximise influence on human behaviour. This is incredibly powerful; but, can be used for both ‘bad’ and ‘good’. When I was asked to speak at the UK Credit & Collections Conference (UKCCC) about bridging the gap between young and mature generations with regards to using technology and language in the debt collection process, it opened up a bigger question for me about the gap between the challenges that the debt collection sector is trying to tackle and those that feed into and fuel those problems in the first place.

The early stages of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) used to be about ‘tricking’ an algorithm so your website would come up higher on Google. As search engines developed better ways to serve information for users’ questions, the SEO industries tactics became more complex. The introduction of machine learning and personalised search means that search engines are better than ever before at working out what people want and marketers now have to ‘hack’ humans in order to satisfy modern day algorithms.

A lot of industries haven’t caught up to this or invested in it to the same degree as the others who want to make consumers spend money. These industries know how to tap into people and their emotional highs and lows to build relationships and conversions. They also invest a lot in brand awareness to make what they offer as easily recognisable, trustworthy and accessible as possible for consumers. Understanding how consumers are interacting with the internet is critical to brand development in the present day. Lenders spend millions on making credit as freely available as possible to those who need it most. But how many people comparatively have heard of and feel good about debt advice or debt collection agencies?

The logic centres of the brain don’t function well in heightened states of emotion and as such the relationships we have built with brands in the past, as well as the efficiency with which we can access their credit services, can lead us very quickly down a damaging path; especially when the organisations who are available to help have not done so. Younger generations are highly spam aware and this means brands need to build a long term relationship that is deeply embedded.

There’s a thrill when you get credit and you can go and spend it, but there’s fear when you get a debt collection letter from a non-friendly brand you don’t recognise. When it comes to engaging with people who are in financial difficulty, we need to help them make a logical decision when they are stressed and frightened. The tactics for doing so in the modern age and for younger generations, need to align with how they now naturally communicate, which looks quite different from bygone years.

Money advice in the digital age

Previous generations took money advice from their elders. But their advice isn’t always as relevant to the current world any more. They didn’t have the ability to panic about a situation and immediately go online and attempt to ‘fix’ it. There was a time delay between the adverse emotional reaction and the ability to take action, which served a purpose in the decision making process one would go through to resolve it. When you had to research something in an encyclopedia, you gained something on the journey to knowledge; but, when we can get knowledge so easily, we don’t learn en route nearly as much or benefit from the time delay it takes to get to a solution. If you had to walk into a bank and ask for a credit card to buy a pair of shoes that you can’t afford, you would have more time between the impulse to purchase and the ability to do so. You may even bump into a friend on the way who might have some helpful advice and as such be more likely to make a different decision.

Typically we understand latency, the delay before a transfer of data begins following an instruction for its transfer to be ‘a problem to be solved’ when it comes to technology. However, the future of the debt collection industry might very well see its future blossom by finding a way to pleasantly cultivate this to protect and educate its audience. Learning to transform proverbial hares into tortoises online is no small feat; but it is possible. This can be achieved through SEO, content creation and influencer engagement. Perhaps even political lobbying with regards to how search engines handle queries of this nature and how we as a society start to more closely link our physical, mental and financial health together more cohesively. 

The current structure of the internet is both Friend and Foe/ You don’t know what you don’t know.

At school we had to learn the formula for photosynthesis off by heart and how to boil and egg. In pre Google times this was very helpful however Google is on to these types of questions and can tell me this instantly if I want to know it and there are even step by step videos to help walk me through the process. However, I was never taught how a credit card works or shown animations of what happens if you don’t use them effectively. If you don’t know how something works, you don’t know how to avoid the pitfalls or how to get out of trouble if a problem arises.

My parents also didn’t have to get student loans, pay for higher level education or have several credit cards handed to them with free popcorn machines, by credit card companies on their first day of university. These things took more time and considered effort to obtain.

It’s not just about what comes up in people’s search results, it’s about what they’re searching in the first place. Google relies on you putting in a search query and if you don’t put in a query, you don’t get an answer. Without greater brand awareness for the support agencies and developments in education, younger generations don’t know who to trust or what the best questions are to ask Google. For example, asking Google for how to get a loan might give the searcher the answer to that but in fact the solution to their problem might be to talk directly to the debt collection agency.

Google builds its relationship with us by giving us what we want; but not necessarily what we need to hear. The digital age has cultivated an expectation of speed and efficiency for information we want yet it has fallen short in reaching people who don’t know they need: particular types of advice or information.

A challenge for many senior professionals in the credit and debt industries is they can’t relate to or advise those in financial difficulty because they don’t know what they’re seeing online. This is because we now get almost all our information online and that information is personalised to us based on our internet search history, location and people in our social networks. For example, if you spend most of your time clicking ‘like’ on your friends’ photos of new outfits, the algorithms are far less likely to show you financial advice articles as you have clearly told them that you care about new handbags more. They are designed to satisfy the user’s interests and thus users get locked into data vacuums of these. This effect is called a filter bubble, essentially an invisible space that gets created around you and determines what you do and don’t see on the internet. These filter bubbles ultimately perpetuate existing belief systems and behaviours… a recipe for getting trapped in your own habits and that of the company you keep both on and offline. This leads to a ‘perfect storm’ of naivety.

I’ve worked with credit scoring companies and they wanted to get into financial advice forums. What they didn’t realise was that a lot of the people they need to talk to won’t be there because financial advice forums are for people who already know that they’re in trouble or know they need advice to avoid it. Finding a creative way to get into fashion pages of magazines would be far more likely to reach an audience that potentially has debt issues.

Predictive search algorithms are incredibly powerful these days and can identify when someone is pregnant or in some cases if they have cancer before they even realise it themselves. They know what the user wants often before they do. Cancer and debt have a lot in common. Survival rates are much higher if detection is early. We have a very similar approach to debt and credit management in modern day as we do with mental health, which is wait until it’s at a crisis point. You can go to an annual asthma clinic to prevent attacks or get screened for colon cancer; but there’s no money clinic or debt clinic that you get a yearly invitation to from a trusted provider like your doctor, so it’s not even on the public’s radar. Crisis point is also exponentially bigger than it’s ever been because of the search technology offering credit to people so freely and easily.

The pressure for younger generations to present a certain way on social media alongside the speed and ease of making it happen by buying things and getting credit online has greatly increased. We filter everything, creating caricatures of ourselves online that are not always helpful. You can see what friends and celebrities are wearing on social media platforms but not how well prepared they are for the future.

A rough guideline for online social behaviour, dictates we are ‘allowed’ to share and invite our friends to see our happy positive moments, but talking about critical issues such as debt in many social networks is far less acceptable. For example, you can say that you’ve bought some expensive new shoes. — that’s good news to spread. However, it’s not socially acceptable to post online that you’ve paid off your student loan – that’s considered boasting – or cleared your debt you accidently got into – that’s shameful.

Building a very different future

The technology and knowledge is already there to allow us to identify when people have a money problem bubbling under the surface; but this requires the advice suppliers to have content out there in the first place that shows up for the queries their users are putting into Google. Currently advice about how to deal with debt isn’t being placed in the same areas that those who most need it frequent or optimised in a manner that can break through filter bubbles. This can be changed.

Influencer marketing will be important for building trust. By aligning with other brands and personalities, it is possible to gain some of their audience’s trust as well as endorsement. Government websites are ‘safe places’ online but they’re not mobile or social media optimised for younger audiences or those who are in a state of panic. Well recognised, trusted brands and government agencies in the sector need to get better at being in the right places at the right time for the right people.

The harder challenges are the societal constructs of what is and is not acceptable to share on social media. But there are precedents of this being subverted in other areas which proves it is possible to do this. However, the tactics to do this will not look like the ones the industry has been using before.

The debt advice and debt collection industry need to stride towards using smarter tactics than their opponents. This means structuring their organisations for optimum flexibility to keep up with the speed of change. We need a mix of all generations working together to overcome this challenge, as such a focus on effective workplace communication skills will be critical. Collaboration internally and externally is also key – you can’t expect to have everyone on board and aligned with an ever-changing strategy if they don’t know and speak to each other in an effective manner. Together they need to be braver, experiment and be willing to stumble in the quest to tackle the problem. Most importantly they need to work together to navigate out of the habits and behaviours developed to cope with the industry’s previous stereotypes and fears that have grown from that.

It’s a big and complex problem but we have to start somewhere. None of this will happen on its own and it’s by no means a small task. There is only one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

Being asked to give the keynote presentation at the debt collection sector’s trade body’s conference is a good first step in recognising that SEO is relevant. I hope I can give delegates the insight they need to start making strides towards the audiences that need them.

Lexi is speaking at the upcoming UK Credit & Collections Conference (UKCCC) in Newcastle.