What Is HEO and Why Does It Matter When It Comes to Building Your Business?

Posted by: Steve Brown

Group of women working together in coffee shop

When people come to me looking to improve their marketing, they say things like, “I think we need a website redo,” “I think we need to show up on searches,” and, “Maybe we need social media?”

They’re frustrated, speaking in the best terms they know. Ultimately, they’re looking to land on something that improves ROI, grows their business, and avoids the mistakes they’ve already made.

What they don’t see is that they’re facing a communication issue, like the fellows in the comedy sketch ‘Who’s on First?’. We might be having the same conversation, but if it’s not clear, we’re never going to be on the same page. It’s funny for us the audience, but not for you as the business owner. 

So how can you, the person wearing 20 or more hats every day, communicate with your customers better so you stop wasting time and money on marketing that doesn’t provide results?

In this article, I’ll teach you what to expect and how to communicate with your customers in the right way—the way that will have you both heading toward the same point on the horizon, walking hand-in-hand no less.

If you’re still using the same interruption-based marketing techniques of the past and it’s not moving the needle for you, this information will help. 

We’ve All Been Brainwashed

Somewhere down the line, we’ve all been tricked into trying to please Google as a key marketing tactic. We hear words like SEO and think they come with the promise of keeping our businesses afloat.

And we keep buying into it, keep throwing money at keywords and alt-text hoping to show up in searches like that’s all we have to worry about. But while those days might have existed once, today, they’re long gone.

SEO might once have enabled you to show up on page one of a Google search. But my guess is that shortly after that was the case, the algorithm was changed. I’d be willing to bet you then went back to chasing those elusive shortcuts rather than fixing what was clearly not working in the first place.

Of course, it is possible to improve your SEO. You can create optimized tags, use keywords, and so on, but that’s only going to work if the product is already helpful and the content is already excellent

Because—and here’s the key—SEO is not your saving grace. SEO is designing for robots, not the humans you’re trying to serve. It’s not how to run your business. It’s not the answer to all your marketing problems. It’s logic-based and anti-human.

It would do you good to remember SEO is only a tool. And you’ll never be able to use it properly if you can’t see the toolbox. Or the other tools in it. Or if you don’t know what problem calls for the use of a toolbox in the first place.

And it certainly won’t help fix a problem that keeps morphing into something else entirely.

In fact, can you imagine what the world would be like if everything changed the rules with no warning on the regular like algorithms?

If you coached Little League, for example, and spent months training your team to hit the ball and run to first. Then at your first game the ump decided that hitting the ball and running to first meant an automatic out. What would you tell your team?

We might not have to deal with changes to the rulebook in Little League, but we do have to navigate running our businesses and creating a marketing system amongst changing algorithms. And the best way to navigate that world is to design a system that expects rule changes and calls for iteration no matter what’s thrown at you.

The only way to do that is by switching the focus from SEO to HEO: Human Experience Optimization. It’s harder to do but comes with a bigger payoff.


Because your business is designed to help other humans. The technology you use to reach those humans, to let them know about your solution to their problems, should speak to them and not to Google. That’s where your biggest competitive advantage is. That’s how you grow your business.

HEO: Human Experience Optimization

What actually is HEO? Well, it’s not just a piece of a marketing plan—a piece you might not even fully understand like SEO. It’s the entire system built around the one thing we all have in common: human experience.

Human experience happens at all points on the buyer’s journey. It encompasses everyone from the business owner to the customer and even those people in between.

Everyone interacting with your business can experience it for better or worse and it’s people who will grow your business or let you disappear into obscurity, not robots.

HEO asks us to remember that our brains still think we are humans. And we are!

You’re not selling to faceless consumers, like most marketers believe. You’re not designing marketing for those faceless consumers and algorithms or even for robots. You’re remembering the humans involved in the process.

And you’re going to do much better than those other marketers because we don't feel safe or understood when we interact with brands who don't care we are human.

My recent experience finding the Lint Lizard, detailed in my book, The Golden Toilet, is proof companies are being found every day without even using Google. (And an even crazier secret is that you don’t even need a website to succeed. Read the book to find out why.)

That’s why you should design for people at every turn. Optimize the experience of everyone interacting with your brand, and you’ll have a much easier time finding the people you can help and convincing them you know what you’re doing in the process.

HEO is about finding people where they are, reducing the barriers to purchase (which includes their own fear), and making their lives better with your product or service. It’s a competitive advantage in a world bent on pleasing the robots because humans fundamentally need to feel seen.

Designing for Humans

Whether you offer a service or product, I’m willing to bet you do it to help other people live their lives in a more convenient, less stressful, all-around better way.

I mean, even if your product is made to keep dogs from tracking mud through the house, those dogs aren’t the ones with the credit cards. They’re not the ones getting excited about bright yellow rain boots that come in packs of 4 or water-absorbing towels designed to pick up mud fast.

They’re decidedly not excited about those things, in my experience. But we are.

Human beings are hiring you. They’re buying from you, and they’re trusting you to understand and solve their problems. They’re the ones offering up their credit cards in hurried excitement or wearily withholding their email addresses.

So why aren’t you enabling them to find you? Why aren’t you making it clear what you do and how it will help? Why are you instead speaking to Google and other search engines and hoping that’s all you have to worry about?

Of course, those are rhetorical questions.

I know why. I know it’s easier to get pulled into believing you need SEO—or to get tricked by a marketer looking to meet their own quarterly goals—when that’s what everyone’s talking about as the latest and greatest.

But, the truth of the matter is, your customer has a brain and that brain desires to consume information in a particular format. And that format is not SEO.

Our Brains

Our world is constantly changing but our brains haven’t changed. What does this mean? It means we’re dealing with today’s problems using brains that were designed to deal with scavenging for food and escaping wild animals, which makes our modern lives as humans so much more challenging.

Think of it this way: our brains enable us to survive. They tell us when we’re in danger, often subconsciously. The same warning signals in our brain that say a predator wants to eat you for dinner sends you running away from convoluted marketing, keyword-stuffed webpages, and books stuffed with more technical words than a college graduate’s resume.

We hate not knowing. More than that, we hate having to exert energy to find out what we need to know. But our modern world bombards us with not knowing all the time. This puts us, as consumers, on edge and constantly dealing with fear.

That means you have to learn how to deal with the daily fear of your customers, make them feel safe and understood, and win their focus at every turn. You’re not only competing against everything else they can spend time doing (cat videos, anyone?) or the companies they could find instead of you, but you’re also competing against the part of their brain trying to keep them safe along the way.

Sure, your product might be the best thing for them, but if you don’t tell them that in a simple, easy to understand method, their brain will never let them stick around long enough to purchase.

Fortunately, when it comes to knowing the brain and how it works, there are strategies that can make connecting with your customer much easier.

The Three Brains

According to Paul MacLean, there are three parts of your brain: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex.

Developed some 500 million years ago, the reptilian brain drives primal behaviors like our fight or flight response. Purchasing decisions, like the last minute items placed strategically by the checkout and for a smaller price point, are made by this part of the brain.

Next came the limbic system, which is where our emotions, memories, feelings, and value judgments, trust, loyalties, hopes, and dreams reside. It makes sense that this part of your brain is responsible for impulse purchases.

Finally, there’s the neocortex. This is where logic, rationale, and reasoning live. What doesn’t live here? Buying. Buying decisions aren’t rational. That’s because the reptilian and limbic brains aren’t associated with language, only the neocortex is. And since these two systems must sign off on all purchases and they aren’t using logic to make their decisions, designing your website to speak to logic or to communicate with robots just won’t work.

For a better system, I recommend StoryBrand. StoryBrand teaches you how to communicate not to the neocortex but to the reptilian and limbic system simultaneously. It’s what my team uses and it has helped our clients make a better impact on their customers.

Putting It All Together

It takes 50 milliseconds for someone to judge your website.

That means you don’t have much time to grab customers’ attention. And even after you grab their attention, you might not have their focus. Just because someone’s given you their attention doesn’t mean they’re not also trying to watch a webinar, find a new recipe to cook for supper, and clear their inbox. At the same time.

Knowing that, and knowing that our brains make decisions emotionally before logically, we need to design systems that are clear, easy to understand, and make someone feel safe in the process (meaning it should be very easy to get from where they are to where they want to be).

The quicker you can do this, the quicker someone will move from, “I’m just looking, thanks.” to, “Sign me up right now! Take all my money!”

You have to earn their focus. And you can lose it at any step along the way. That’s why systems, like the Business GrowthStack need to be designed with humans in mind.

As a small business owner, you have just as much opportunity for growth as the big-name counterparts if you focus on the human experience surrounding your business. I’d go so far as saying that neglecting the human desire to be communicated to as a human instead of as a consumer is killing your business.

So stop tricking yourself into believing you need more SEO to stand out and start focusing on HEO instead. Your business will thank your smart brain.

And if you want more tips on how to apply HEO to your business, schedule a strategy session. I’ll talk you through it and help you create a game plan to implement all the pieces of the GrowthStack into a seamless, human-driven system.

Schedule a Strategy Session