I would like to introduce you to the dark side of so-called partnerships among providers, advertisers and agencies -- in search. While there have been touchy relationships with publishers and agencies for years in the online space, search was more or less considered untouched by the shenanigans within relationship mongering.
To be perfectly candid, I didn’t want to write about this topic. I was going to round out the year with a little something about listing best practices, last minute holiday search tactics … something fun. Then an interesting thing happened about a week ago. I might have dismissed this event as a random act of stupidity, but I asked a dozen or so industry colleagues if anything similar has happened to them, and my inbox was filled within hours.
Apparently, an employee of a noted search engine sent a series of emails to advertisers within a specific vertical with the express intent of bypassing the agency relationship and any level of known decision-making hierarchy on the side of the advertiser. This isn't the first time such an email has been sent, but it was the most instantaneously notorious.
Search is just a bit more complicated than the rest of online advertising, but in some ways it's a bit simpler. The process of search or paid search management involves hundreds of steps and unique activities, yet one or two key players deliver the most traffic. To the casual observer, therefore, it would seem that letting them help with the process might be good idea.
Some search providers are even offering bid or listing management tools. Maybe that would be OK, right? Google, for example could manage my bids on Google.
Wait, maybe there is more going on here.
While search grows up, there are a few things you should know about the players involved, who the players are, as well as what might provoke an otherwise intelligent group to act like a collection of two year olds.
For the most part, search engines are public entities. Despite the pretty façade and love-in style introductions, they are soul-less cash mongers who couldn’t care less about you.
I remember going to a search party the last time AD:TECH was held in Los Angeles (frankly, there were no other parties). While boozing it up, my rep enjoyed telling me how much fun it was to go out and sign up my client’s biggest competitor to drive up bid costs.
Now that’s nice, isn’t it? True story folks, I am not making this up.
The argument from the search engines is very simple and effective. “Agencies don’t understand search and specialized SEM shops don’t carry enough weight to be effective in the marketing world,” one search provider told me on condition of anonymity. “If we can’t get a direct introduction, we’ll try to get the agency to get us in so we can then move around them.”
Of course, if I were on that side of the business, I would do what I could to get a direct relationship with a client. From the bottom of the food chain perspective, half the time agencies have no idea what’s going on with a client and are just guessing. Said guessing, the other half of the time, leads to the agency getting fired and the search provider has to start all over with the relationships.
It is the same old song and dance, but with a slight twist of course.
Remember when online advertising grew up? The day an apple dropped on the head of every publisher and they realized that agencies might actually serve a purpose in the world? The day they realized there just might be something to the media model that has been around since before Darrin Stephens was storyboarding tire ads? The moment publishers acknowledged agencies are not just a bunch of bumbling clods standing in the way of precious revenue?
We act in the best interest of our clients. Period. Sometimes. We think so anyway, just answer the damn RFP and like it, OK? Except the RFPs you see in search don’t look much like RFPs elsewhere.
Let’s presume, for argument’s sake, that you as a brand have done your homework, and your agencies all know their responsibilities, so you are well on your way to building your marketing dream situation. You get a call from the search provider, who has appointed a specialist for your line of business. He must know far more about your situation than you do, yes? Or maybe this is yet another ploy to bypass your agency and possibly yourself?
"Agencies need to be cautious of overly cozy interactive publishers who wish to present themselves as a package to their clients. While a deeper level of partnership between agency and publisher is to be commended, agencies need to be mindful of their overall mission, which is to provide strategic counsel and value to clients,” says Ron Belanger, vice president, Carat Interactive.
Ok, so it’s not just me. Like I said, my inbox was full.
“A healthy dose of skepticism, impartiality and publisher agnosticism are all requisite traits of a good agency,” Belanger continues. “After all, a publisher's goal is to snare the largest share of a marketer's wallet, and an agency's goal should be to find the channels and publishers who produce the highest return on ad spend for their clients."
And in the end, it really isn’t any more complicated than being happy with your lot in life. If you are a publisher or search provider, be a provider and stop trying to be a neutral third party. It isn’t going to work, and you will end up looking foolish.
Clients aren’t as stupid as one might hope they would be. They can see through idiotic ploys to get more business. Also, understand that when you bypass an agency or other contractor, because you don’t think they are moving fast enough, the client you seek to ingratiate yourself with might just be a bit insulted. By assuming the agency they hired is clueless, they, by extension, are also clueless aren’t they?
Last year I wrote about the differences among site developers, SEMs and agencies. I forgot one and I am a stupid, stupid, man for doing so. In my defense, big publishers had yet to go public or be acquired, and the world of search was still in diapers. Today, even though search has moved on to disposable pull-ups, that doesn’t mean we are going to be accident free.
Search This! Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?
iMedia Search Editor 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, the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.
Reaching the internal audience
Gaining a more thorough understanding of the consumer perspective was only one part of the equation; there was also a wealth of information within MTS Allstream waiting to be tapped. For instance, a series of executive roadshows held in January 2009 spurred a great exchange of ideas between internal thought leaders and employees. To capture this dialogue and continue to solicit new ideas, MTS Allstream created employee exchange forums covering five different topics. However, the company didn't want to create two entirely separate forums based on language -- this would only segregate the staff.
Instead, bilingual topic areas were created where employees could post in the language of their choice. It was also decided that, while the forum topics would be translated into French, employees' French comments would not be translated into English. There were two reasons for this decision:
- Translation can alter the tone of the conversation and potentially contribute to misinterpretations
- Time lags associated with translations make it difficult to continue the conversation in a timely manner. By the time the translation has been posted, the conversation has moved on. As a forum designed for idea generation, a sort of natural selection ensued and everyone is posting in English -- even in the bilingual topic areas.
While it's one thing to create a forum for idea generation, it's quite another to create online conversations. Two MTS Allstream executives have turned out to be quite active bloggers, and although the formats of their blogs are essentially the same, they're a perfect example of why it's important to take the question of translation on a case-by-case basis.
The blog written by Mike Strople, vice president of technology development, is English only, whereas the blog authored by Dean Prevost, president of enterprise solutions, is also translated into French. The deciding factor is the audience reading the entries. Strople's blog is really only addressing his team, but Prevost is addressing the entire company. On that level, it was important to translate his blog posts, which now appear with the English version directly above the French version of the same post. As with the forums, employees are welcome to post comments in either English or French, but MTS Allstream doesn't translate them.
MTS Allstream also set up a group of internal wikis, primarily for the technology group, where information can be shared. In their initial phase, the wikis are only in English but, as the entries evolve and certain sections become actual policy guidelines or the content becomes fairly static, MTS Allstream will take the "best of" and translate the posts to French so they are available for everyone.
On a macro level, MTS Allstream's use of social media is designed to maximize awareness of the company's brand and products, and to help ensure it's being perceived in a positive way. MTS Allstream's Facebook page provides the framework for an open dialogue with customers. Meanwhile, the YouTube and Twitter accounts have provided another channel for MTS Allstream to proliferate its messages through commercials or videos relating to corporate initiatives.
Likewise, the internal collaboration initiatives have helped break down barriers and create a more connected environment among MTS Allstream's departments, which in turn has resulted in greater awareness of the activity taking place throughout the company and the contributions of each group. In particular, the employee exchange forums have been an overwhelming success, having generated several hundred posts to date.
The success of these activities has created a new challenge: How should the company report back on progress? To solve this, MTS Allstream is in the process of developing another intranet site that will actually show the ideas in action. It will be a discussion forum where employees can talk about ideas and allow peers to rank them as well. Additionally, MTS Allstream will have a blog space on the site where the director or vice president accountable for an initiative can report back via blog posts on execution status.
Lessons learned and best practices
How to utilize social media is a top-of-mind question for virtually every marketing department. Serving customers in multiple languages presents an added challenge, but it need not diminish your social media end goals.
- Identify what you're trying to achieve: Communicating in the customer's language can be a cost-effective way of building consumer loyalty and growing revenue, but determining the best course of action starts by knowing what business problem you're trying to solve. If the dialogue you establish doesn't remain focused on a particular objective, the information you receive in return likely won't address your needs.
- Understand your audience: Carefully considering who the audiences are and what they need to get out of the forums, blogs, and wikis enables you to plan accordingly for translation where needed. Indeed, not everything requires translation; there is a point where you have to draw the line. The best approach is to address each component individually.
- Address the needs of the major players: What groups should be consulted in the development of content, and from whom should content be delivered to the community? Identify these early in the process to ensure you have buy-in from all the right stakeholders and necessary resources committed to the task. A social media program, in any language, can't be successful if it isn't consistently updated.
- Establish a feedback loop: People engage in social media platforms because they offer an opportunity for their voices to be heard. Provide an opportunity for them to see that their efforts have not been wasted.
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Misunderstanding one's followers
Jennie Smythe, CEO of Girlilla Marketing (and a participant in Leadership Music's upcoming Digital Summit on Sept. 10 in Nashville), has found this to be true:
"The most challenging part of pitches we often are a part of is the fact that the vendor does not understand or respect the fan/friend relationship. Social media (and database options) participants are friends/fans of a page/profile because they want a direct relationship with that particular artist/brand. Good profiles are trusted sources of official information. Are promotional pitches and sales initiatives a part of those channels? The answer is yes, of course. But good marketers know that they have to keep the troops entertained and engaged without asking for anything in return, as well.
"Many times we are asked to endorse a product or service via social media. While this strategy makes sense if it's an organic relationship, often times it's a forced contractual implementation of a number of mentions. That strategy might have the appearance of initial ROI success, but it can be a dilution of both brands if not properly implemented. The reality is, a good marketer can spread the word without needing to do it multiple times. Like any relationship in the world, if you tell the same story over and over, people stop wanting to talk to you."
Overselling their capabilities
Robert Rose, chief troublemaker at Big Blue Moose, has seen this lie play true many times in the past:
"I would say that the biggest lie that some technology vendors continue to tell marketers is that somehow buying and implementing their technology will magically make them better marketers. The plain truth is that technology will never engage even one more consumer more deeply, or create a more compelling advertisement, or even create one more customer.
"Marketing is a practice that can and should never be fully automated. It will always be a balance of the art of creative and the science of deriving meaning from measurement. Technology is a tool that, at best, makes marketers more efficient at iterating the former and provides more power to do the latter. Ultimately, the truth is that technology simply gives the marketer time to be more creative, more innovative. It's up to them to actually do it."
Retargeting in the wrong direction
Sweta Patel, president of Global Marketing Tactics, recalls this moment:
"Our agency decided to use a retargeting service to give our clients an extra boost. They promised us a certain amount of clicks, impressions, and content networks. Our ads would be displayed on any content network of choice. We handed them a list of the specific content networks we wanted to display our ad on. In return, we were never displayed on those networks, the clicks could not be tracked, and the impressions seemed rigged. The traffic to our website seemed as though it came from bots and other 'quantity seeking' websites. The boost we wanted to give our client turned into a fail when we calculated an ROI of zero from this service.
"We recommend other agencies to research and find out how the clicks to the page are tracked, exact places where the ad will be displayed, and where the impressions are coming from before they choose a retargeting service."
Following a so-called crystal ball
Tonia Allen Gould, founder and CEO of Tagsource (formerly Tag! The Creative Source) and new marketing startup BRANDHUDDLE, had this to say:
"What your technology partner may not be telling you is that that they are probably capitalizing on current technology trends, and those trends can be nothing more than fodder that may not be worth the capital investment in deploying them in your overall digital marketing strategy. No one has a crystal ball, yet some tech companies would like you to believe that they can see into the future by getting you to jump onto those early, still-evolving trends.
"I hate to pick on one tech tool only, but search engine optimization (SEO) is a good example. This trend is changing since Google corrected its algorithm to favor companies who solicit useful content versus strategy that involves keywords that are parked on useless websites. Additionally, while SEO has proven itself beneficial in the past by bringing your business to the forefront of your competitor's businesses through keyword search, the moment everyone else began deploying the same strategies was the moment the overall practice became counterproductive and no longer worked exclusively to keep your business relevant. Businesses stay germane by doing everything different, and opportunistic marketers know that if they veer just left of what everyone else is doing, this is where they have a chance to shine and standout in a fast-paced marketing and media climate that has everyone confused. The reality is, SEO is still relevant if deployed correctly, but I wouldn't stake my future in it."
Tricia Despres is a freelance writer.
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"Man in the right side and the wrong side" image via Shutterstock.