Since you are all probably just stepping back in from the summer season's opening weekend, I'll try to keep it short this week -- hold your applause to the end, please. I am on the business end of three days at this year's San Francisco revivalist Internet marketing show, that is to say, AD:TECH, and a couple of really neat things happened on the way to my search panel.
Of course, AD:TECH was a peach, and if you were among the strong, most enlightened bunch who stuck around to catch day three, you got an earful about search marketing in two sessions. Killer research, at least one earth-shattering case study and a group of industry moguls (I was there as well) chatted it up about brand and search.
Here's a run down of the goods.
I think the actual panel title was something like "integrating" search. Integration is a funny term and it is tossed about quite a bit, as if everyone is supposed to come up with a strategy for it without really understanding what it means.
The first search marketing moderator of the day, Jupiter's Gary Stein, prefers to think of the integration process as a marketing ecosystem. Maybe, but an ecosystem is defined as "an ecological community together with its environment, functioning as a unit." I am going to call it holistic search marketing. Like integration, holistic is a word that is thrown around a bit too much, but the defining characteristics of holism, a theory that "reality is made up of organic or unified wholes that are greater than the simple sum of their parts," seems to suit what's happening in search at the moment.
Speaking of what's happening right now, Stein unleashed some pretty significant research from the world of Jupiter. First on the list, search marketing education relating to the purchase of both high- and low-traffic keywords, along with multi-word phrases, must be hitting home. Jupiter surveyed marketers using more than 1,000 keywords from 2003 to 2004, and the number jumped from 4 percent to 22 percent. Interestingly enough, searchers using one to 10 keywords dropped 19 percent in the same time period.
While the expanded keyword evangelism may be working, it appears the measurement preaching is not. According to the Jupiter data, a large portion of brand marketers aren't measuring search's impact. The simplest answer for this has been that marketers simply haven't had need for it yet. There was a time branding effectiveness measurement wasn't needed for banners, either.
Car radios and plasma TVs
Whether you call it integration, ecosystem or holistic search therapy, no one presentation illustrated a good execution strategy more than Scott Skurnick's. He's the manager of search and affiliate marketing for Circuit City. Skurnick's approach not only showed that the parts of search together have greater value, but also that shifting the dynamics of measurement can be extremely effective in maintaining a successful search marketing initiative.
Circuit City has about 600 stores in the United States, and the electronics retailer has shown how the offline world can successfully meet the online world with a "buy it online and pick it up at a store" system.
In search, Circuit City modifies search term strategies according to the stage in which the buyer exists. For brand-related or generally informational queries, emphasis is placed on high positions and traffic volume since generic terms tend to show lower immediate returns. In more specific or purchase-oriented terms, the goal is maximizing sales based on existing sales-to-cost ratios.
The Circuit City presentation also effectively addressed a hot question on everyone's mind these days: Is search marketing cost of sales, or cost of marketing? One finds the answer -- at least in the short term -- through effectively placing search terms into buckets and evaluating response based on brand-orientated goals or response-driven objectives.
While many of the tactics found in Circuit City's execution strategy are not brand new, it sure was nice to see a big brand up there depicting an accurate deployment.
Preserving America's natural reSEARCHes
In other news, as I was strolling into the search session, someone handed me research from Enquiro Search Solutions. An outline of their recent search study was presented, as well. One key finding is that 70 percent of searchers in their online survey of 425 respondents named Google as their top search choice. Also, searchers used a funneled process for locating what they want in search starting with broad terms and narrowing down with longer and more specific phrases. Controversial data in the report showed a significant portion of users ignored (nearly 80 percent) paid search results.
Wherever you may be clicking, Dun and Bradstreet's Mike Bruno, director of online marketing, showed how search visitors could be segregated into need-based buckets. Simply put, using source tools, existing customers go to one area, hot leads go to the sales department ,and leads that will predictively go nowhere are, well, handled appropriately.
Searching for brand equity
Question: What happens when you put four industry gurus on a panel and ask them to talk about branding in search? Answer: an unfinished debate on affiliates, a plan for building a co-branded site to expand brand search possibilities, and an explanation of when it is important to be number one that used adult diaper analogies -- it depends.
Search branding came to AD:TECH once again with yours truly, moderator Barbara Coll, (aka The Web Mamma) president of the Search Engine Marketing Professionals, Frederick Marckini, iProspect's chief executive and technology officer, Kevin Lee, Did-It.com's chief executive officer and David Karnstedt, Overture's senior vice president and general manger of direct business.
Karnstedt and Lee offered the most level-headed viewpoint on our first question relating to the importance of being number one in search results -- review your client's goals and objectives before addressing the issue of positioning importance. As in the Circuit City example, it is important to understand your metrics before demanding that number one spot. So, is it important to be No. 1? As Lee said, it depends.
Lee also pointed out that co-branding can sidestep search marketing limiting factors like available inventory, suggesting that Coca-Cola to launch a Clay Aiken (of 'American Idol' fame) co-branded site to expand reach. A site like this would open the door to a much larger keyword set beyond traditional brand key phrases.
Another big question from the audience wondered: If brand keywords have achieved great rankings in natural results, should one bother with paid? Well, in addition to losing ground to competitors who are possibly bidding on branded terms, the answer lies in the speed to market dilemma. Let's say, hypothetically, your very well branded adult diaper has achieved a great ranking in natural search and you have just announced a breakthrough absorbency or comfort technology that will change the industry. What's the fastest way to alert searchers of this earth-shattering development? Buy paid listings.
The panel wound down with a discussion on self-competition in keyword bidding among brands and their sales channels or affiliates. Last October, I wrote a piece on best practices in this area, which placed policing affiliates as a great way to go, while Marckini published a differing viewpoint in November. Marckini's article went the way of competing with affiliates might not be such a bad thing. I believe both viewpoints to be sound and it seems to illustrate the bifurcated affiliate keyword search strategy in the marketplace today. Brands either take control of their relationships with strict guidelines, or let the affiliates run free. Don't worry if you missed the debate, we'll be back on stage in Chicago for round two.
That's a wrap
While we're on the topic of search content at conferences, I have to ask: Only two sessions at AD:TECH? Two? Through deep analysis, I guess I can understand the thought process.
Take the approximate percentage of search firms on the trade show floor, for argument's sake let's say 80 percent. Eighty divided by two leaves us 40 percent, which is the approximate percentage of online budgets dedicated to search these days. If you then take the 40 percent number and multiply that by the percentage of online marketers who understand and accept search as a component of online advertising, you get exactly two. Makes perfect sense to me.
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. In his off iMedia time, Ryan is director, market development at Wahlstrom Interactive. 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.
Relying heavily on QR codes
All the rage in 2010 and 2011, QR codes took a hit in 2012. Many mobile and marketing industry pundits believe the technology is flawed for a variety of reasons. Based on my experience, I agree. QR codes require too many steps and rarely solve a problem uniquely.
Newer technologies like near-field communications (NFC) and other apps are rending the QR code obsolete. Saturation of QR codes at events and in print media has created a jaded consumer who is more likely to ignore than ever. Without unified standards, competing solutions like Microsoft Tag create confusion and annoyance as they might require download of additional apps. The bottom line: Be cautious when using QR codes; make sure they solve a problem better than newer, more intuitive technologies.
Keyword-based search engine optimization
When I first optimized websites in 1996, we spent a good deal of effort embedding target keywords throughout website copy and code and then measured effectiveness based on rankings for said terms in search results. Times have changed, and as Google gets smarter, the algorithm relies less on keyword placement and more on context.
The other troubling trend exasperating the old-school SEO pros is that Google is now hiding search terms from your referring search engine traffic logs. When searchers are logged into Google Search, Firefox search bar, and Chrome address bar, all searches are encrypted with HTTPS, causing an increase in "(not provided)" results in your keyword data (up 171 percent since its introduction). As "not provided" data become a bigger part of our analytics reporting (now estimated at 30-50 percent of Google traffic), marketers are forced to spend more time and effort on content and contextual analysis. The good news is that organic search results still drive a good deal of qualified traffic, and evaluating rankings or visibility is not as important as the ability of that traffic to convert.
Creating content for content's sake
"Content marketing" is a newer term for an age-old challenge related to creating visibility online. The recent changes to the Google algorithm, combined with increased consumption of socially distributed content, have created headaches (and opportunities) for marketers.
Unfortunately, creating compelling content (think Red Bull) can be expensive and daunting for many organizations. As such, these companies tend to rely on cheap solutions including outsourcing blog and article creation to unsophisticated writers who are paid by the word or article and not based on quality or user value. These companies might also outsource social media management, which often results in a flurry of meaningless and often automated status updates.
Even more sophisticated marketers are falling short with advanced content strategies around audio, video, and images by creating useless or boring podcasts, presentations, and infographics. If you can't create compelling, unique, or remarkable content that provides value to your target end user, you might be hurting your brand more than helping it.
Retargeting (aka, remarketing) is an advanced technique that effectively targets visitors to your website via advertising on third-party websites. Unfortunately, too many marketers have failed to customize the ad creative based on segment or goal. Consumers can be easily annoyed by brands that overtly follow them around the web with seemingly irrelevant offers or, more importantly, with very targeted messaging, but long after they've purchased.
To avoid this costly oversight, consider segmenting audiences, create personalized ads, and use frequency capping. Additionally, trying to maximize reach by using multiple retargeting vendors can also make efforts ineffective as each retargeting vendor will be bidding against each other for impressions, thus driving up cost and further annoying your target audience.
Avoiding landing page testing
Not maximizing conversions through a consistent testing program is quickly dying out as a trend. Increasingly, companies are leveraging intuitive and affordable landing page and conversion optimization platforms like LiveBall to refine page design, messaging, and offers to maximize conversions. More advanced marketers are actually incorporating lifetime customer value (LCV) into the equation, particularly for paid search and social ad campaigns. Learn more about landing page and website conversion optimization in this article, "Turn Website Visitors into Customers via Conversion Optimization."
Ignoring personalization and behavioral targeting
Using the same website content or messaging as a one-size-fits-all solution for a diverse audience has become an ineffective strategy. Beyond segmenting email lists and messaging, using behavioral targeting to personalize recommendations or offers has shown to dramatically increase retention and conversion rates.
While expensive and complicated personalization platforms were the rage more than a decade ago, newer, simpler solutions now provide marketers with the ability to target website visitors in real-time with personalized messaging or offers based on behavior and demographic data. Companies ignoring or avoiding the latest technology solutions will do so at their own peril.
Underestimating the power of video (and audio) marketing
In my article "The ultimate guide to video marketing on YouTube," I outline reasons to create a comprehensive video marketing campaign centered around YouTube (the world's second largest search engine). Video is the most compelling story-telling medium, has higher recall than other forms of media, and can be repurposed as audio, images and text from a single HD recording.
Research shows internet users are conducting informational searches in YouTube, so content should be created for all stages of the buying cycle. These same principles can be applied to an audio strategy for iTunes and other audio-centric platforms. If you aren't in the game in 2013, you could likely be out of the game completely soon after.
Gaming reviews and buying followers
While generating fake reviews or buying real reviews have been effective historically (e.g., using Mechanical Turk for building Twitter or Facebook followers), review sites and consumers are getting smarter. A great deal is at stake, as research has indicated customer reviews are the No. 1 influencer for purchase, but cheating or "gaming" the system might result in costly penalties.
Consumers are getting smarter about sniffing out fake or paid reviews; overall ratings might seem unnaturally high, and comments might seem over-the-top or inauthentic and actually repel prospects. Review sites are also wising up, improving algorithms to identify and remove fake reviews. Minimally, cheaters will waste precious time and money securing reviews that ultimately get removed or simply ignored. I've outlined other ways to waste time and money and injure your brand in this article: "9 ways to lose friends and alienate people in social media."
Making decisions based on the wrong social metrics
Data analysis is the core of any successful marketing campaign. Leveraging analytics platforms to gain insight into user behavior and preferences is essential across media channels.
Social media marketing has gained tremendous momentum within organizations, yet it is relatively immature, particularly from a measurement perspective. The most common mistake marketers make in regard to social media measurement is relying on absolute numbers instead of relative ratios. Many companies measure social success based on the net increase of "likes," followers, and fans. Mainstream media is known to measure Klout or velocity of status updates as a key metric, or sentiment. All have their issues.
The most important metrics are relative: engagement or conversions as a percentage of total "likes," followers, or fans. Maintaining or improving the ratio is more difficult than it might seem, but doing so will result in a more informed social strategy. For more insights, read my article "The 9 dumbest ways to measure social media."
Obsolete digital marketing strategies 2010-2011
In addition to these latest obsolete strategies, it's worth reviewing those from years past as well. When compiling trends for the 2010 article, I talked with my team and industry peers and conducted a good deal of research. Filtering my findings against my own digital experience dating back to 1996, I defined seven strategies no longer relevant to future success. Below is a brief recap:
Building a digital marketing team. In today's world, marketing teams should be media agnostic and develop integrated marketing campaigns by leveraging the expertise of traditional and digital-native professionals. While many marketing teams are still somewhat segmented, true media and discipline integration is increasingly popular.
Designing a website via internal stakeholder committee. The enemy of good design is groupthink. The larger the organization, the more likely the corporate website will lack creativity, consistency, and clear messaging. Google's latest algorithm updates now reward exceptionally designed websites that provide an optimal user experience. Google's algorithm is now the new stakeholder, which will reward well-designed sites with high rankings.
Managing e-marketing campaigns to impressions, clicks, or budget forecasts. A significant number of marketing campaigns are now managed based on conversions, thanks to advances in analytics and paranoia from the VPs and CMOs. Additionally, marketers now understand the importance of relative metrics, particularly for social media. The remaining marketers that still rely on outdated metrics will soon be relics of the past.
Paying third-party vendors to represent your brand in social media. Thank goodness this trend is finally taking a turn in the right direction. Many brands are taking social media management in-house, after agencies and consultants have fallen woefully short. Effectively managed in-house social media does require new thinking and evangelism. Remaining social media agencies must rethink their approach in order to stay relevant.
Doing black-hat SEO. I wrote this article before Panda and Penguin updates took hold. Those updates meaningfully affected rankings for companies failing to follow best practices for content creation, site design, and link development. Finally, the intersection of good search engine optimization, marketing, and website design is here, and this trend is very real.
Renting email lists. As far as I can tell, the idea that you can rent an email list and expect to generate tons of qualified leads is a long-dead concept, thanks to CAN-SPAM compliance and savvier consumers. Now, more than ever, marketers are relying on search engine and social media marketing and other strategies to generate leads rather than relying on ineffective email list rentals.
Sending unsegmented or untargeted emails. The rapid adoption of sales and marketing automation platforms has led to a much higher level of list segmentation and generation of highly targeted emails. Gone are the days of blanket emails to a large database, at least for truly successful organizations.
The digital marketing landscape is dynamic. In order to stay on top of the latest trends, you must have the discipline to continually test, learn, and network. Two additional helpful resources for looking forward include these articles: "2013 Search Engine & Social Media Marketing Predictions You Can't Ignore" and "5 digital trends you need to embrace."
Learn to align your standards with your client's needs
Every client project has milestones. But sometimes you and your client will have different definitions of the work required to meet each milestone. Let's say you are creating some artwork for a landing page. And perhaps work your ass off around the clock to finish a version of the artwork before the first deadline. But if the client had known how hard you were working, he might have told you to pump the brakes. Because maybe all that's required is a simple wireframe or layout. You might be killing yourself on details that aren't important to your client.
Don't compromise the integrity of your work. Rather, focus on the client's needs and understand that a project's budget restricts how many hours you will be paid to work on something. Frequent status updates with your client can save you tons of time in the long run. Good communication can prevent disappointment on both sides. This is especially true of first-time partnerships.
Faster sign-off on creative
In my experience, the dreaded "sign off" is the source of most delays. Do anything possible to eliminate the amount of steps required to complete a project. On the client side, make sure that only a single person (if possible) is designated to approve creative. On the creative side, minimize the number of people emotionally invested. Collaboration is great for creative brainstorming but terrible for project efficiency.
Going "above and beyond" at any stage isn't heroic. Assuming that you have already aligned your standards with your client's needs (see above), you'll know exactly how much work is required. Going beyond the requirement only delays your project. So resist the urge to show off. Cut acceptable corners like building simple templates instead of full comps. Once you have a library of your own comps, recycle them (without cannibalizing your own work of course). Drawing from your own library of work is totally fine as long as you are bringing something unique to each new project.
Along these same lines...
Establish the bare minimum required points of sign-off
Stop copying everyone on your emails. I know that it feels like you're covering your ass. But in reality you're implicating a bunch of people who probably don't want to be implicated. It's your project, man. Own it. Keep the email communication only among those who require it.
As a person who has been mercilessly cc'ed over the years, I can tell you that it sucks. It's like coming home to your drunk roommate who just had a terrible date. You're going to listen to their slurred story and deal with it because you're not a dick. But in the grand scheme of things you really didn't have to do anything because that sad, drunken lump would have passed out and been all better by morning without a single moment of your now completely forgotten conversation.
Another symptom of the wanton cc is the dreaded workplace hall confrontation: "Well hell, Hubbard. I cc'ed you on this issue on Tuesday the 26th at 9:22 a.m." At which point you just have to say, "Look, man. I can't be the police of every email that I'm cc'ed on." And then everybody goes out for ice cream (if you're lucky).
If you actually need approval from every person in the food chain before moving forward, your project will stagnate. Most projects don't require extensive collaboration, and collaboration isn't always good anyway. Let the experts do their jobs while you do yours.
Skip formal proposals
When I first struck out on my own as a freelance marketer, one of my first priorities was to discontinue my own use of "formal proposals." In my view, the overly formatted and absurdly verbose proposals (often no more than loosely modified templates) that I both created and received over the years were wasting everybody's time. So I started writing my proposals in concise, plain language. And I simply wrote them as unformatted (or very simply formatted) emails. So far, I haven't had a complaint. And I've read the same about other marketing professionals' doing the same thing. Skip the ceremony and save time.
Here's the trade-off: You'll have to proofread your emails. But proofreading emails is a good habit anyway. Proofreading is time well spent (and not a good corner to cut).
Obviously there are exceptions. In the case of RFPs with specific requirements, you're probably not going to be able to take liberties. But simpler is almost always better. While agencies tend to promote the idea that the response itself is a way to show off your design chops and attention to detail, I think otherwise (because you're not getting paid for that RFP work). Allow your work to speak for itself (and provide plenty of analytic data, of course). Sometimes you simply can't avoid a formal proposal. But when you can, go for it.
Honesty as a corner-cutter
When you're honest there is less to keep track of. Let's say that a client asks for your opinion on a current project. You're sure that a similar question has come up in the past, but you can't remember what you said. If you've been honest all along, you can simply respond in the moment without having to sift through your emails to see what kind of bullshit you might have spun in an earlier communication.
Honesty is difficult, and it's embarrassing sometimes. You missed a deadline because you confused something on the project calendar? That sucks, but you should come clean now. You might be surprised how much professional respect you can earn with an honest admission of opinions and mistakes.
Use your phone wisely
Oh how the phone rules have changed over the past few years. Don't pick up the phone every time you have a question. Nowadays unless you have permission, an out-of-the-blue phone call can be considered rude. So unless a phone-heavy relationship has been requested by your client (weekly meetings fall into this category), it's probably best to keep primary communication to email and IM when you can.
In other words, don't cry wolf with your phone. Don't be the dude who is constantly calling or else you'll end up getting screened. Keep normal professional communication to email and IM. But when you need phone time, it can be a powerful tool.
Keep a check list: Simply keep an updated list of questions that you need answers to. On the periodic occasion that you need an immediate answer to a question, pick up the phone. And then use that opportunity to quickly answer your outstanding questions. Respect everyone's time and be efficient. But, you know, be polite. Don't forget your manners.
Stop being so sensitive. Seriously. You're making people waste a lot of time by worrying about how not to hurt your feelings. Be receptive to change, new ideas, and collaboration. You're a professional, damn it.
"Concept of fast business with running businessman," image via Shutterstock.
Generation Z wants to be more human, more connected with friends
A big misconception that marketers (and most adults) make about what the future will look like for Generation Z is that they assume technology will make teens and tweens more detached from reality. With the advent of information technology, new devices, and distraction gadgets, the assumption is that we are raising a generation that will feel and be less human than any other generation that's come before it. However, the reality might be the opposite. Lewis Dvorkin predicts that because of the overwhelming slew of technological advancements and virtual connections, Generation Z will actually seek out technology that will make them feel more human and connected. Generation Z will not be the semi-cyborg group we all assume they'll be. Perhaps they will use technology not as a way to recluse themselves further into the world of virtual interactions, but as a way to bring themselves closer and arrange actual meetings.
Lewis Dvorkin ends our conversation by explaining why he thinks that the next big gadget may be the one that lets users feel more human and less detached, rather than more secluded from reality.
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"Businesswoman with problems" via Shutterstock.
Step 5: Are people finding and using the content?
This is where web analytics comes into play. What types of content -- and what pages in particular -- are the most and least popular on the site in question? Where do users spend time, and where do they go when they leave? Are they taking desired actions on a page, whether clicking to buy or to download a white paper or filling out a contact form? What search keywords and phrases bring them to the site? It's not enough that content is simply there. The numbers don't lie. They can reveal what's working, what's not, and help direct a strategy that supports more of the types of content users use and seek.
Step 6: Is it clean and professional?
Is page copy consistent in tone? Are spellings, punctuation, and grammar consistent and above all, correct? Are abbreviations and acronyms standard? If the site has a style guide, is it being followed? Are images captioned in a consistent manner, and properly placed/oriented on the page? Do hyperlinks follow any pre-designated rules (e.g., open a new page in a separate browser window)?
Step 7: Is content logically organized?
Does the site contain tacked-on pages that don't follow navigational structure? Does the overall navigation make sense? Are there redundancies, such as on the site below that lists "Personal Finance" as a separate section in the navigation, then again lists that section in a submenu under the heading "Money & Careers"?
Finally, when users visit a section, do they find what they expect to?
Greencince, a Netflix competitor, offers particularly good examples of badly organized content. Take the taxonomy and navigation of the following content sections, for example. Pity the user looking for new DVDs to rent who stumbles on newsletter archives, or the seeker of a back issue of the newsletter who lands on contests and giveaways. Both the naming of links and pages, as well as the navigational structure, are woefully misleading and off-kilter:
- New and Coming Releases > New on DVD > Newsletter archive page
- Dispatch Newsletter Archives > Greencine PR, Marketing, Events > Page lists contents and giveaways. (Far below the fold, it links to the same newsletters archived on the "New on DVD" page.)
- New to GreenCine > New to GreenCine > Actual listings of new/soon-to-be-released DVDs.
Step 8: Tone of voice
Every brand or business has a distinct voice that expresses its personality. Serious, irreverent, scholarly, authoritative; all are valid, but the tone, language, and mode of expression must be a fit, and must be consistent with the brand. This step evaluates the content's tendency to spill into multiple personality disorder.
Step 9: Keywords, metadata, and SEO
Are target keywords and phrases used on the site, and on appropriate pages in the most advantageous places? Are page descriptions and metadata used appropriately? Are images and multimedia files captioned? Is metadata employed to make them search-engine friendly? Are headlines optimized for search? Search engine optimization begins and ends with content, so evaluating to what extent content conforms to best practices in search is an essential part of an audit.
Step 10: Identify gaps
Conducting a content audit focuses so much attention on what's there that it's often too easy to overlook what's not there. An essential step in any audit is therefore to identify weaknesses, gaps, and content needs. A site may be rich in information on how to order, for example. But are issues surrounding shipping and order fulfillment adequately addressed? Is the press/media section strong on press releases, but weak on photos and video offerings? Does the company blog address company issues heavily, but general industry trends not at all? What's missing speaks volumes about the forward direction of a content strategy.
Step 11: Identify needed changes/actions
This is where the rubber hits the road. It's not enough to produce a giant spreadsheet. The goal is to define gaps and problems, as well as to identify strengths and develop specific recommendations for improvement.
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