tail wag dog inbound marketingI’ve noticed something about a lot of companies that are calling themselves “inbound marketing firms” these days: they are actually SEO firms or Web design firms that are attempting to reposition their businesses in the marketplace.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. Over the past two years, Google has pulled the rug out from under SEO firms, which have traditionally employed what Google now calls “unnatural” link-building methods to push their clients up the search rankings.

Google knows that “unnatural” SEO worsens the Web experience for millions of users who are tired of stumbling upon lame content and websites that rank highly in Google because of gamesmanship by SEO firms. What does Google mean by “unnatural”? The simplest way to put it is that the website hasn’t earned its ranking by generating high-quality content that attracts real audiences and links.

Web design firms, meanwhile, have been squeezed by low-cost WordPress templates and plugins that make building a top-quality website simpler than ever. The days of $30K+ website design projects (once the bread and butter of large design firms) have come and gone, with relatively few exceptions.

Making it even tougher for design firms, more clients are asking hard questions about the design process. Before, designers could mesmerize clients with talk of their “intuitive” designs that “tap into the energy of your business” or “symbolize movement toward the future.” They would talk about color palettes and design aesthetics, but rarely about the purpose of your site: to get customers.

Now, clients expect the proof to be in the pudding. “I don’t care whether the site is pretty or not,” they increasingly are telling their vendors. “I want it to convert visitors into leads. Can you do that?”

And that’s where inbound marketing comes in.

The problem for firms that start with SEO or Web design as their core discipline is that while these are both important tools for inbound marketers, they are not the foundation of inbound marketing.

The foundation of inbound marketing is good storytelling, which starts with good writers (whether they are writing blog posts, video scripts or social media updates).

And that’s why public relations firms are far better positioned to be the inbound marketing firms of the future. PR has always been about storytelling; when journalists change careers, it is typically to go into PR because it’s such a natural transition.

Journalists are far less likely to join SEO or Web design firms, and when they do, they often feel like fish out of water — a “content provider” bolted on to an agency that doesn’t really understand journalism or storytelling.

One successful example of a PR agency that has transitioned to an inbound marketing model is PR 20/20, the Cleveland PR firm and HubSpot reseller led by Paul Roetzer. More firms like Paul’s are popping up everywhere, as PR people expand their traditional offerings to better serve their clients.

Hiring an SEO or Web design firm to manage your inbound marketing program is the tail wagging the dog. Pick an agency that knows how to tell a story.