Why would two guys agree to subject themselves to a round-the-country, multi-city presentation schedule with a moderator/master of ceremonies who isn’t exactly known for taking it easy on the experts? Search marketing education, of course.
Ron Belanger, Carat Interactive’s vice president of search, and Chris Henger, senior vice president of marketing and product development at Performics, joined yours truly and Derek Hewitt, iMediaLearning’s president, in this year’s iMediaLearning search marketing road show.
Our mission was to produce an online learning course and road show with agnostic search engine marketing content to help educate advertisers about the delicate intricacies of search. With the astronomical growth of search, advertisers are asking a lot of questions with few resources to attack the complex requirements of a search initiative. "Google approached iMediaLearning with the idea of a search marketing course and road show, and we answered with a solid collaborative effort across major search providers and key players in the industry," Hewitt says.
OK, so, there really is no tour bus per say, but if you combine Chris’s six-string experience with Ron's -- who spent nearly a decade in an alternative rock band -- on the drums, and me on the bass -- yes, I was in an alt band, too -- we could actually produce quite the search marketing concert series Nirvana. For the moment, none of us have any plans to quit our day jobs, but for a group of guys who met face-to-face exactly one hour before the first show, we’ve achieved an onstage dynamic that might be compared with Cobain and company.
After touring Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Dallas, I thought it was time to catch up on our experiences on the road, what we have taught our audiences, and what we have learned from them. So without further adieu, here are the secret discussions in the "back of the bus."
And now, the banter:
Ryan: This topic is inherently boring. Let’s face it, on its best day, a search marketing show cannot compete with a rich media Eyeblaster extravaganza. Do you think we do a good job of keeping people awake during the show?
Belanger: We keep the content as interactive as possible, non-sales pitchy, and since Chris and I switch out speaking roles during the three-plus hours stage time, we have a dynamic experience for the audience.
Henger: While 2003 was the year of what is search, 2004 has become the year of how to approach search smartly. Since we have many live examples of using search tools and information, I think we keep the content moving very well.
Hewitt: The tough part is finding the middle ground between people who know quite a bit about SEM and those who do not. We are trying to create a class of managers, without providing too much redundant content so attendees will have a learning experience.
Ryan: So we are trying to educate without being didactic, but how have we achieved the main goals of show?
Belanger: Well, one of the key developmental aspects of both the course and the show is helping advertisers focus on the marketing aspects of search without abandoning the technical components.
Henger: We’ve had both agency and brand representation in each of the audiences, since we have a great deal of best practice and detailed case study information in the presentation, both audience groups take away information they can use
Hewitt: We are crossing the line from "pure search" into taking away an integration strategy for SEM while trying to address the practical question, is search cost of sales or cost of marketing.
Ryan: Cost of sales or cost of marketing would seem to be different for each client and industry. Everyone knows online merchant category killers are pretty sophisticated, but how are we graduating beyond them to help offline merchants measure and use search?
Henger: Both the course and the road show illustrate a two-step process. Getting away from online merchants, we are showing measurement techniques like building leads for offline sales.
Ryan: We mentioned deep content with case studies, how much fun (that was sarcasm) was to it to assemble them and get clearance to use the information?
Henger: We spent months collecting the information from large and small advertisers alike. Our goal was to share recent examples of the trials and tribulations in the space.
Belanger: First question, no comment. A lot of times in conferences we see sales pitches without useable content. In the show, we try to have a large cross reference of information and diversity in the clients we talk about to maximize audience takeaway.
Ryan: What is the hardest part about your job on the road? Aside from, of course, waking up in the morning and trying to figure out which city you’re in?
Henger: The toughest part of educating is that search is a moving target. As an industry, integration is our biggest challenge.
Hewitt: Though the show could not have been possible without sponsorship (attendance is offered without cost), our sponsors have not had a lot of requests to fill the show’s content with their information. Though we use our sponsor’s information in various portions of both the presentation and online course, content is not limited to sponsors, and we keep extremely relevant.
Ryan: Bid management in paid search is a hot topic and we seem to have gotten a lot ofrequests for more information on the subject on the road. Everyone wants to know if they should use a third party and why.
Henger: A sizeable program requires thinking and human interaction along with the bid management interface. It [bid management] should be a start to the process. We see a lot of advertisers who try to navigate the space on their own initially with a small program, and when they expand to hundreds even thousands of keywords, a bid manager or agency becomes a reactive need.
Belanger: That’s the answer. An advertiser has to take into account the scope of their needs and make adjustments so it doesn’t have to be an urgent problem solving need, but a well thought-out solution early on in the process.
Ryan: Another buzz source from our audience has been SEM spam. Where does one cross the line between the search and spam?
Belanger: In the show, we talk about the miserable failure Google bomb. In our eyes if Google and Yahoo! identify it as spam, then its spam. While the whole process is still open to interpretation, search engines are setting the standards.
Henger: Search engines in general are taking a long-term view to relevancy in search, i.e. to provide a long-term revenue channel as opposed to a get rich scheme for search. That is the foundation of many avoiding spam practices: provide a rich user experience.
Ryan: I have found a healthy mix of youthful enthusiasm combined with a small amount of old-age skepticism. After traveling around the country and meeting search marketers everywhere, we are in the unique position of being able to offer a reading from the search marketing barometer.
Hewitt: Most people have a pioneering search marketing attitude. It’s quite refreshing when you compare that to some of the skepticism we have seen with other ad formats.
Henger: The underlying thread is, "How the heck do we do this and make money?"
Belanger: I am pretty impressed on the general knowledge attendees have of search. And middle-level players are asking some tough questions.
Ryan: Each city represents a new and different audience challenge. How would you describe the attendee blueprint of each show?
Hewitt: We have a big cross section of large brand advertisers, which points to an in-house search activity trend.
Belanger: I think a lot of people begin search in-house, realize how difficult it is, and then move it to an agency.
Henger: Every audience has been different. I think what sets our content apart is that we tailor each presentation to the audience we are about to see.
Ryan: Anytime you speak to a large audience there are bound to be some mishaps and the occasional boondoggle. What’s the funniest thing that happened with the roadshow? (Just as I asked this question, a woman walked up behind Ron and spilled her drink inches away, nearly drenching him in root beer.)
Henger: Most of all, hanging out with the sponsors and trying to keep track of the changes in the industry have been a lot of fun, but it had to be when we tried to do a live keyword suggestion demo in L.A., we ended up with a bunch of "adult" keyword results by accident.
Belanger: Since we all just met five minutes before the show began, I am surprised at how quickly we have been able to develop amazing group dynamic. Now if we can just get you to stop plugging your column.
Henger: I think we should address some of Ryan’s antics along the way, telling us to keep the sales pitches to a minimum…
Belanger: …while pimping his column in New York.
Henger: Or how about suggesting we all set fire to Newsweek in San Francisco, or quoting the movie 'Old School' during the presentation in New York?
Hewitt: I believe that was the week Google’s founders were on the cover of Newsweek, correct?
And that’s all the time we have
For the record, my suggestion for disposing of Newsweek napalm-style related to the ramifications of our news media painting paid search in a negative light, not burning Sergey and Larry in effigy. 'Old School' was a moving film on so many levels.
Of course, after listening to search marketing content, I believe our audience is entitled to a little non-traditional excitement as I moderate the question and answer session. That will be the subject of next week’s column, where I’ll address the top 10 questions asked on the road show to date. And remember, you can still catch the road show later this month in Chicago and Toronto.
Next week: Search marketers' top 10 questions
iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.
But it's not taking or uploading pictures that should worry marketers. It's the fact that consumers on the other end of these photos are viewing, engaging with, and generally spending more time with images they see on Facebook, Tumblr, or Pinterest than they used to spend reading the glossy magazines that arrived on the newsstand once a month. Accoring to comScore's Mobile Metrix 2.0 survey, Facebook users are spending more than seven hours per month visiting the site by way of mobile phones alone. Om Malik, founder and editor-in-chief of GigaOM, asserts that photos are the fuel driving the mass migration to social media:
"Photos are the reason many of us continue to engage with Facebook. Facebook has tried many verbs to increase and maintain our engagement with the service -- read, listen, watch. But in the end, it's the photos that work wonders for the Menlo Park, Calif. based social-networking giant."
Research from a team at Harvard Business School supports Malik's claim. A 2009 study finds that 70 percent of all activity inside social networks revolves around photos. Keep in mind that the study was conducted in a time when Facebookers were uploading a mere 31 million photos a day, and MySpace was still relevant enough to be included in a study of social-media sites.
These millions of new photos (or at least those shared by friends and organizations we choose to follow) are pushed to us each day in an unending, ever-updating stream of visual storytelling. We watch our friends' kids grow up in near real-time, and news stories unfold throughout the day as fresh photos replace those from hours or minutes before. Publishers are also responding to their readers' growing appetite for image content with larger high-res photography and the "gallery-ification" of stories as disparate as celebrity news, travel destinations, and business analysis.
According to the Wall Street Journal, roughly one-third of pixel real estate on the web is image content, and those images get old fast. In its first three days on the internet, the average photo has attracted half the total views it will ever attract. If you look at content shared via social media platforms rather than the entire web, the half-life for content is measured in hours not days.
Source: Bitly Blog
And there lies the rub for brands. The changing dynamic of media consumption has changed the rules of marketing in the following three fundamental respects:
"Professional grade" doesn't get the mileage it once did
Sure, the list of most-viewed clips on YouTube includes Justin Bieber music videos, but it also includes quirky independent interviews of people waiting in line for iPhones and home-movie sensations such as "Charlie bit my finger...again." The same goes for photos. Consumer interest no longer tracks with traditional definitions of "photo quality."
There was a time when all media was professional media created and distributed by large publishing companies. At that time, it only made sense for advertisers to polish their creative units to a professional, high production value shine. Good advertising should always seek to imitate the editorial content around it -- "native advertising" has been around long before the internet. There's mounting evidence, however, that recall rates for TV spots and display ads in magazines are declining, despite the professional expertise that goes into their creation. Nowadays, relevance trumps production value.
Now that amateur photographers have gained access to distribution -- Google might lead you to an independent photoblog, Instagram might introduce you to some great photos from an excellent hobbyist -- consumers are dividing the world of photos into "interesting" and "not interesting," as opposed to "professional" and "amateur." Interesting no longer requires the talents of a professional.
Attention deficit disorder has become a lifestyle choice
A trend that's probably as old as the publishing industry has achieved fever pitch: content miniaturization. Articles get shorter and shorter, yet readers still can't get to the end of them. I mean, who has time to read the entire tweet anymore? Audience ratings seem to suggest that frequency and freshness of content are trumping quality and depth. In a world where tapping our thumbs on the Instagram icon on our iPhones unleashes an endless stream of photos taken in the last four hours, looking again at last month's print ad for Prada strikes many modern consumers as boring.
Consumption is giving way to interaction
There's an activity that's even more popular than posting pictures: "liking" and commenting on pictures. It's a sign that we define ourselves not only through our own pictures, but also by associating with other people's pictures. It's this instinct that explains the growth of Pinterest -- the social network that rocketed to 10 million users faster than any social network before it. It's not built on photo-sharing in the sense that Instagram or Facebook are (i.e.,"Hey, check out my pictures") -- it's about photo-assembling (i.e.,"I've collected these pictures so you understand who I am and what I care about"). According to research by Pew, 41 percent of us find photos and videos online and re-post them on sites designed for sharing with others. In fact, it's one of the most popular things we do on the internet.
In order for brands to embrace these new platforms for photo mixing and mashing, they need to get comfortable with their images being separated from the carefully assembled context of yesterday's print ad or the spring catalog, and being extracted from the traditional models that protect ownership rights and pay out talent royalties. Your customers want to befriend you and play with you, but that game is going to be on their terms.
So what's a brand to do?
"The creative departments at traditional agencies simply can't adapt to this new world," said John Battelle, founder of Federated Media and the first managing editor of Wired Magazine. The old rhythm of branded storytelling -- devise the big idea, take a month to convert it into an artistic piece of advertising, and then enlist the media department to implant it deep into the skulls of consumers through mass media -- is losing its efficacy. Agencies will continue to find success producing professional-grade assets and distributing them around tent-pole events, but they're ill equipped for the in-between times -- the 363 days a year that don't feature the Super Bowl or the Oscars. The beefy muscles built up over years of pumping out 30-second TV spots and full-page print ads aren't well suited for the marathon running required by lasting social-media conversations. "Brands need to catch up to media," said Battelle. To do so, brands are going to need some help.
"Most creative agencies don't see themselves as ongoing, real-time publishers -- that's the business of, well, publishers," said Battelle. "I predict the two will merge over time -- agencies must become more like publishers, and publishers are going to have to learn how to service brands like agencies do."
Federated Media says the solution is a distributed, crowd-sourced model for branded content creation, and it invites advertisers to tap the talents of "the world's largest creative department" -- the 30 million some-odd bloggers affiliated with FM that range from the vast army of small WordPress publishers to large-reach sites such as Boing Boing or Notcot.
Three years ago, David Veneski, Intel's director of U.S. media, took FM up on the offer for a program called "My Life Scoop." While the site features periodic updates on products like Intel-powered Ultrabooks, the bulk of the content is created by a broad array of independent content producers who speak the native language of Intel's customers -- those young, affluent people who seek out cutting-edge tech gadgets to enhance their lives. The imagery that accompanies the site's content is not highly produced. Instead, the emphasis is on fit, tone, and relevance. The photos and videos collected, curated, and presented to "My Life Scoop" readers are done so at a fraction of the cost associated with a professional shoots. The content is on-message, frequently refreshed, and invites social amplification. Nearly 50,000 Twitter users are following the "My Life Scoop" feed, and 100,000 Facebook members have "liked" it.
"It's important to us that we provide an authentic and compelling brand story for our target audience," said Veneski. "We find that visuals and imagery -- both photos and video -- alongside written content, offer a way of telling a story that is more interesting to the people we want to reach."
Source: GE's Tumblr
General Electric has taken an even more stripped-down approach. On Tumblr, the company created (with help from the Barbarian Group) a corporate site that is nothing but photos. You'll only find text where it's used to caption or hashtag a photo. What's initially surprising is that airplane engines, smart LED bulb testing facilities, and gardens decked out with PulseArc Multi-Vapor metal halide lamps are quite photogenic -- especially when they've been dolled up with an Instagram filter. Without set designers, models, or professional photographers, GE is telling its story with frequent, low-cost iPhone pictures. More importantly, GE fans are spreading this story to their networks complete with comments and hashtags.
And the "interactivity" isn't just something that occurs after the brand unleashes the content -- GE uses Twitter to invite its social-media followers to pick the locations of future photos.
Source: GE's Twitter account
Without breaking the bank or getting reckless with its brand, GE found a path to social-media relevance. The brand is leaning into the consumer acceptance of spontaneous, inexpensive photo storytelling. This isn't just reducing production costs, either -- it's giving GE a stream of highly sharable content nuggets to satisfy the short attention span types and the sharers.
In other words, the company is speaking our language -- the one in which every missive is worth a thousand words.
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Create a Facebook "want" page
This is the core to the success of "want." This page would aggregate all "want" related information, from what you "wanted," to related product and service information, specials, promotions, sharing, as well as a link to online retailers (more on this later). Think of it as a wishlist on steroids.
Extend "want" to online retailers' shopping sites
This one is pretty basic, but it would require a lot of coordination and consideration. Online shoppers check many sites before they make a purchase. By including a "want" button on product pages and throughout the shopping process, retailers will be able to capture customer intent, keep them within their conversion funnel, and allow the merchant to communicate with customers across multiple channels -- including mobile.
"Want" as a performance-based social affiliate
This would be a big win for media buyers that have not been able substantiate attribution through Facebook. Imagine clicking "want" on a friend's photo of him commenting on his fantastic Carnival Cruise vacation. This "want" would be tagged and stored within the person's Facebook "want" page. Based on the tagging and any action that the person would take, the advertising would be able to understand the attributed value of the "want" and pay Facebook for the action.
Coupons, specials, and even group buying
I might "want" something, but most online shoppers don't want to pay retail. Simply clicking on "want" within Facebook on specific products and services would allow you to save your "want." Then, when products come on sale or promotions are offered, the Facebook user would be alerted.
This could also scale to a Groupon-type model, in which if enough people "want" a product at a certain time, it could trigger a Facebook group sale. There are a lot of logistics involved, as Facebook would need to work with an online retailer or supplier, but it could be tested at a small scale. Furthermore, it could probably seriously undercut the vig associated with a Groupon sale.
Facebook-branded Amazon "want" site
"Want" is a great bridge between interest and an online purchase -- so why not own the ecommerce side of it? If Facebook teamed up with Amazon to completely rethink the social commerce user experience, it could potentially drastically reduce the purchase lifecycle by providing the research, price comparison, and one-click buy all in one place.
Facebook gift registry, anyone?
Social registries aren't that unique, but using Facebook "want" to aggregate products through a Facebook ecommerce site or even across retailer sites would make it super-easy to manage. It could also allow people to pool their resources and share in the purchase of a gift.
There are few things more enjoyable than speculating on the future, and I promise that at least one of the predictions in this article is on Facebook's horizon.
The overarching opportunity lies in understanding the changing retail landscape and the customer buying journey. On average, online consumers perform seven to 25 days of product research before they decide to buy, and they're increasingly researching across devices. The trick to closing the sale is to reduce this buying time by providing online shoppers with the information they need to feel comfortable that they are buying the right product. By clicking on the "want" button, Facebook could bring all of this research directly to e-shoppers, thus reducing the amount of time for research. In order for this to happen, Facebook would have to look at social commerce holistically across mobility, online, and real-world and map it back to consumer shopping behavior.
This is really only the consumer side of the equation. The data collected from the business side could be uniquely valuable to product innovation, inventory management, and distribution -- to name just a few.
So, to be totally cliché, I have to end this article by asking: Will Facebook users "want" it? I believe it all depends on what Facebook makes of its opportunity.
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"Abstract thumb-up like button" image via Shutterstock.
Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO
"Carpentry background" image via Shutterstock.
Frank Cooper, PepsiCo CMO
"Broken pencil point" image via Shutterstock.
Marissa Mayer, Yahoo CEO
"Runner" image via Shutterstock.
Ben Silbermann, Pinterest CEO
"Close up of a note paper with push pin" image via Shutterstock.
Mark Pincus, Zynga CEO
"Tree branches on blue sky" image via Shutterstock.
Jack Dorsey, Square CEO and Twitter chairman
"Hand of business women" image via Shutterstock.
John Battelle, Federated Media executive chair
"1100101 blue" image via Shutterstock.
Larry Page, Google CEO
"Night traffic" image via Shutterstock.
And last but not least...
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"Magenta Speech Marks" cover image via Shutterstock.