I set out to see America recently. Well, most of it, anyway -- the California sunshine, Texas' wide expanses, New York's hustle and bustle, and winter’s last holdout in the Windy City. After two weeks on the road, at least two things are now painfully clear to me. One, my favorite airline couldn’t give a rodent’s posterior about my health and well being. Two, Americans are craving information about search engine marketing (SEM) like never before.
Amid jockeying for first-class upgrades and attempting to break new emotional ground with the lost-luggage people, I put into practice my knowledge of the various search marketing languages. That is to say, I spoke techie intolerance (early dialect), marketing/advertising snobbery, CEO blue suit ideology, and, of course, sartorial trade show. It seems the informational needs of SEM audiences are as diverse as the people now practicing SEM.
What is the best access point for SEM knowledge? There are as many opportunities to learn about search marketing today as there are possible locations for my lost luggage. Though cataloging all of them would be impossible, here are few steps toward finding the right SEM knowledge box, along with a little background on the search information explosion.
Where Did All This Demand Come From?
In 1997, the same year that GoTo.com (now Overture Services, a Yahoo! company) began selling listings in Yellow Pages-style ad format, the IAB presented its first literary representation of The Case for Internet Advertising as a supplement to AdWeek. SEM was not included.
Only three short years ago, Andy Bourland’s ClickZ Guide To Online Advertising barely mentioned SEM. Why?
Until very recently, search marketing meant tactics for optimizing site architecture to increase listing rankings in natural or editorial search results. The responsibility for doing so rested exclusively with a few select SEM firms and the site builders. Online marketers did not consider SEM advertising.
Fast forward to 2003. Piper Jaffrey released a report in March that concluded search would be a $7 billion industry by 2007, growing from $1.4 billion in 2002. In June 2003, the IAB reported that online search spending had grown from just over 4 percent to 15 percent in 2002. In effect, the online ad industry has been forced to provide increased representation for SEM. Widespread integration of pay for placement into online marketing programs and the popularity of search has provided seed funding for a search engine marketing explosion.
The end result of this detonation? Lots of choices to learn about search.
The Show Must Go On
Deciding on big trade show attendance is a little like selecting notes for a symphony. The right sounds together will make a beautiful career and knowledge-base development masterpiece. Select the wrong ones and your intelligence orchestra could sound like a dozen horny cats playing bagpipes. Mine sounds like a combination of Annie Lennox’s 'I Saved the World Today' and the entire Motorhead 'No Sleep 'Till Hammersmith' collection.
SEM content in trade shows is primarily focused on high-level introductions to the universe of search marketing. However, Search Engine Strategies (SES) has been dubbed the SEM industry’s show with multiple tracks reaching into the depths of search. Hosted by the original search guru, Danny Sullivan, SES appears throughout America in major cities as well as all over the world. My advice for attending SES? Study the agenda. With multiple tracks across three or four days, navigating your way through the show can be a task in it of itself, but well worth the effort.
Ad:Tech is one of those can’t-miss trade shows for online marketing. Search marketing content has been increased over the years as demand has dictated. Ad:Tech has no affiliation or loyalty to a specific publication or agenda-carrying industry organization. Due to its popularity, Ad:Tech’s only loyalty is to its audience, which consistently contains key decision makers in the industry. Show staffers maintain strict quality controls over content and recently made great strides in keeping speaker sales pitches to a minimum. For these reasons, I like to refer to Ad:Tech as the true non-partisan industry barometer.
In a category all its own is the iMedia Summit. The summits create an experience unparalleled in industry gatherings. You will not find an exhibit with lots of booths and banter. What you will find (only after being invited) is content designed for key decision makers in the industry. My first iMedia Summit was a wake up call for what can happen when you gather a large group of key industry professionals while offering them a multi-day think tank for top industry issues -- networking of the highest order and the ability to effect immediate and permanent change to the way online marketing functions. I could say the iMedia Summit ruined me for all other trade shows, but it just doesn’t fit the trade show model.
Stepping outside traditional channels can provide you with a fresh perspective as well. Case in point; local search. This topic is bound to be hot at any SEM trade show, but garnering the perspective of a stodgy old industry like the yellow pages can apply a whole new knowledge base to local search. In my experience, the clear-cut leader in this space is John Kelsey’s firm, which not only gives attendees their money’s worth, but adds a touch of class to an industry in dire need of some polish.
Other publication-driven conferences and summits offer a unique “reader destination” perspective to the industry and are picking up more search content. AdAge and Jupiter Events (SES affiliated). represent a great way to see the issues you deem important take form and shape. Technically speaking, the better the audience, the better the event. I have no further comments here, you know who you are.
Industry organizations round out the search for knowledge. The IAB has a big bold search committee and IAB events continue to provide more search related content and the organization has a search specific road show planned for later this year. Also worthy of mention are Shop.Org and the Direct Marketing Association’s Net marketing trade show.
All of these events represent big opportunities to fly off somewhere to learn about search, but what if you don’t have the budget for travel or tolerance for obnoxious airline employees?
In a Theatre Near You , or School of Search
Find an event near you or go back to school. Why not do both? This month, iMedia learning kicks off its eight city road show and its Search Marketing 101 online learning course. I took a sneak peak at the course outline and presentation last week and I haven’t seen expert collaboration like this since the works of Van Gogh and Gauguin -- with two possible exceptions. One, there will be no ears forcibly removed. Two, though traveling these days can have an adverse effect on one’s psyche, advanced depression is not in the agenda.
Regional events provide a great forum for search marketing. Audiences tend to lean toward small to medium enterprises and since search experts reside all over the country, these events can usually pull in some great talent. As an added bonus, one can take local networking to the next level since attendees are bound to be from your neck of the woods.
Content for these mini-shows is often jam-packed into one day or evening sessions. Organizations like the DMA have local chapters which provide SEM information in easy-to-digest packages. Some are billed as the end-all-be-all for search marketing information, but hopefully we are all just a bit smarter than to accept a search cancer pill pitch.
There are literally hundreds of events all over America. The best way to find them (aside from the usual networking) is to check in with your local business trade publications. One piece of advice here: watch for sponsor-driven content -- i.e. in the event a vendor is providing all of a show’s information, prepare yourself for interlaced sales pitches.
On the other hand, getting a sales pitch doesn’t mean you can’t glean useful know-how from the information presented. A couple of month’s ago, I attended a two-day training class organized by Overture for the purpose of, you guessed it, helping advertisers learn how to use Overture better. Stop laughing. I found the course extremely beneficial and a good way to meet the people I work with every day in search.
There are plenty of people out there who are more than willing to “teach” you about SEM. A simple Google search for Search Engine Marketing Training reveals quite a few options for search coursework. Some these “classes” are formulated around sales pitches for an organization’s services or to help sell the author’s book.
In the End, It’s up to You
Wherever you may go, whatever event or group of events you may find to suit you, make your investment of time and budget in the activity pay for itself. Study the agenda carefully and attend sessions you think are most relevant to your needs. Ask lots of questions. Relevant and poignant interrogatories can add value to every attendee’s experience but don’t try to turn the session into a personal gripe venue or steer the conversation away from its set agenda. A good moderator will bring the conversation back down to earth, but don’t count on it. Lastly, fill out those comment cards. Believe it or not, the people behind the scenes at these events are listening, so tell them what you want!
See you on the road.
About the author: 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. Kevin 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.
Kevin feels the concept and practice of “customer service” in America is a rotting corpse. He has given up hope for a company maintaining any level of respect for the people who purchase goods and services from them, particularly airlines. Mr. Ryan is also a card carrying friend of the AdBusters foundation.
Promise 4: The ability to highly optimize exchange buys makes them superior to less optimizable direct-site buys.
Sears: If you are looking for something that is repeatable, at scale, then yes, exchange buys are the way to go. If you are looking for something that is intentionally not repeatable and not scalable -- but deeply customized to produce impact at lower scale -- then direct site buys may be your answer. And one can complement the other.
Glass: This is certainly true, and we've seen this again and again. (By the way, ad networks have the exact same advantage as exchange buys vs. direct-site buys.)
Coelius: Optimization is easy to say and hard to do. Smart marketers should be very skeptical of those who talk the talk with claims of magic algorithms, and instead they should test constantly to see which DSPs can actually walk the walk and truly perform.
Promise 5: Cutting out middle men and buying in an auction-based model leads to lower CPMs.
Glass: Not necessarily. I think the auction ultimately is a more efficient way to expose value. Some impressions will be worth more and some less, but once the auction becomes efficient through more bidders and the consistent use of data, we should see impressions clearing close to actual market value. Ultimately that benefits all players in the ecosystem.
Coelius: At the moment prices on the exchanges are unnaturally cheap, and marketers who have learned to leverage DSPs are able to see tremendous return on advertising spend. Yet the reason why prices are cheap is that the good inventory is mixed in with worthless junk. Without a smart buying platform, it is easy to lose your shirt buying supposed cheap inventory.
Sears: Stop worrying about the money other people are making and worry about your own ROI. Look at media spend as an investment and not a cost management game, and you will stop putting impediments in front of you and your client. This should be a race to the top, not a race to the bottom.
Promise 6: Exchange buying give you a better chance to target niche audiences than site buys.
Sears: Yes, I'd agree. The emergence of real-time bidding (RTB) allows for the real-time assembly of audience and content at scales not previously achievable. Think of RTB as your own personal, virtual web property, customized just for you. Within the next three years, a client will be able to describe the virtual web property they want to purchase -- all aspects of audience, content, creative capabilities -- and will be able to purchase this on a spot or guaranteed basis. You want to buy guaranteed audience, content in an upfront market across the massive fragmentation that makes up the internet? Done. Not done like it is today with high operational cost, but done in a way that is technology driven but still requires highly skilled executives to design, execute, and modify the strategy for excellence.
Coelius: Scale matters. Without scale, niche audiences are pretty much worthless.
Glass: Largely false. I believe that highly endemic sites make it easier to find highly niche audiences than exchanges. There are some data providers (like Bizo) that can help to scale access to niche audiences within a specific vertical, but endemic sites will generally continue to have high value when it comes to finding certain highly niche audiences.
Promise 7: Targeting is king.
Coelius: Targeting does rock.
Sears: Unless you over-do it. Then the huddled masses will demand scale and overthrow the king.
This is becoming more and more true. In addition to the value of "buying audiences" discussed above, as more impressions are bought via auction, targeting becomes critical to know what to bid for the impression. Thus, ultimately targeting will become king, and those who possess better targeting and more data will have an advantage over those who don't.
Promise 8: Major workflow and cost efficiencies are gained by running all of your media through a trading desk.
Sears: There should be. However, too many buys still use trading desks and DSPs for the same line items they allocate to ad networks and single sites. The savings and efficiency is missed unless you manage overall spend in a more dynamic and cohesive way.
Glass: Coming from a company that operates a trading desk and a traditional ad network model, I can say that there are definitely clear benefits to run all media through a trading desk from a workflow perspective. I think that the cost efficiencies are still less of a certainty, and we see that the ad network model with site transparency and control often delivers significantly more ROI than the trading desk model. Additionally, given the lack of transparency, marketers don't always know if they are hitting all audiences. Over time, as more and more media becomes transparent on the exchanges and the overall quality increases, the trading desks should be able to compete more effectively with networks.
Coelius: Some day all digital media will be traded in an automated fashion, and smart marketers who understand this are moving quickly to develop a new skill set.
Promise 9: Auction-based exchanges offer an even playing field on which smaller advertisers and agencies can compete.
Glass: False. Not today and likely not ever. Those agencies that have the resources to mandate volume and scale have the advantage today because exchanges and bidding are such a new concept. There simply aren't many (any??) small advertisers or agencies out there that know how to effectively leverage the exchanges, and even some of the trading desks still don't really know what they're doing. Just like on Wall Street, the smaller players tend to get left out in the cold, and the high-volume insiders generally have a significant advantage.
Coelius: At the moment, the playing field looks much fairer than it's even been. Small players can now get access to the world-class tools that previously only the big boys and girls could play with.
Sears: Yes, agree. Same great taste, less filling. Even playing field -- just invest in your people and bring your "A" game.
You cannot write a "best of" list when it comes to online advertising and not mention this execution. Simply put, it's the one that started them all.
In a time when banner ads were a relatively new idea and the ones we were seeing were mostly static GIFs (with minimal colors) or maybe a more realistic JPG here and there, this bomb dropped and blew the doors off of everyone. Somehow, a then-small shop called RedSky had figured out how to recreate the classic video game Pong in a 728x90 banner ad, and it did it at an extremely small file size.
If you could have seen my face when I first saw this ad, it probably resembled something akin to Roger Rabbit's eye-popping, tongue-wagging surprise face. Followed by the question, "How the hell did they do that?" I promptly set about learning just that.
Once we all caught up to that darn Pong ad and learned how to get complex animations into banners at a relative low file size cost, creativity in banners plateaued for few years. The industry was concentrating on better messaging, better use of the space, and -- in some more infamous cases -- punching monkeys around.
During the latter part of this time, a new type of ad emerged: rich media. This was a banner on steroids -- one that could get bigger, or float, or have extra pieces called panels. In the early days, those expandables were basically the same banners we'd previously been making with some HTML components that would appear if a user interacted with the banner. Hey -- this was groundbreaking stuff!
Honestly, though, none of it looked very good or was particularly useful. That is, until the U.S. Department of the Treasury decided to release a new, highly advanced $20 bill and purchased a swooping advertising campaign to explain what the bill looked like and contained. A portion of this campaign was a series of expandable banners, but instead of the panels being boring HTML, these were highly interactive, animated, and fully featured. They allowed the user to manipulate a magnifying glass and roll over the different aspects of the bill, with fly-outs that explained the varying security features. For the first time, ads fully realized the potential of this new technology and were a sweeping success. The ads went on to win Yahoo's inaugural Big Idea Chair Award and forever changed the thinking around creating rich media.
Until this point, we had been moving forward. First, create a simple picture and call it an ad. Then, devise an animation and call that an ad. More recently, create two animations (or more), piece them together to interact with each other, and call that an ad. More often than not, the result was something that looked, well, like it was in pieces. The pieces were well designed and worked together, but in the end, not necessarily a fully formed "whole."
Then Jamie Foxx donned a pair of Wayfarers and wowed the world with his interpretation of Ray Charles. Once the Oscar buzz started, it came time for Universal Pictures to release the movie on DVD, and it chose a series of expandables to promote DVD sales online.
When created, these ads worked backward, asking the question, "What if you only see the whole picture when the ad is fully expanded?" The result was the first true microsite as an expandable. The banner itself, while appealing, was a teaser for the full ad. When expanded, the panels and banner worked together, seamlessly, to form a miniature site that let the user learn about the features of the DVD, see stills from the film, listen to music from the soundtrack, and watch trailers and clips for the movie. This single campaign set the standard for how expandables should be and still are created.
Synced ads -- or the idea that two ads on the same page (a 728x90 and 300x250, for example) above the fold would communicate with each other -- had been around for a while. In fact, the technology is something that we pioneered during my days at PointRoll. At the time, we were using Flash local objects to get one banner to cause a change in the other banner, and it was pretty cool stuff. Though some of the examples were notable, they were nothing compared to what Apple wowed us with a few years later.
In this campaign, the two ads used video to take the Mac vs. PC television campaign to a new peak of interactivity and ingenuity. The PC would crawl out of one banner and into another, the Mac would look up at him as he carried out his antics, and we would be inspired to think of the page in front of us as a larger canvas that was able to carry a message beyond the borders of traditional banners. Even after compiling this list, I still long for more examples that use the medium to such a lofty effect as this campaign.
While I'm not thrilled awarding the two slots on this list to the same advertiser, it's hard to brush off the innovation and creativity in these units. Ignoring the traditional limitations of a banner, these incorporated the top third of the page and turned the entire thing into a part of the ad, which was revealed through a little visual trickery.
When loaded, these iPod Touch ads appeared to be the new larger ad units recently introduced by some publishers like YouTube and Wired, and they replicated the product demonstration method most were familiar with from iPod and iPhone commercials. However, as the hands began interacting with the iPod, the action quickly moved beyond the borders of the banner, making the top of the entire site tilt, twist, flip, and react to the action going on below. The result was so seamless, smooth, and non-intrusive that it quickly achieved a result typically reserved for memorable video -- it went viral. And, as we all know, word of mouth is the best advertising of all.
Each one of these executions defined the era in which they ran. Almost all of them set the bar for what could be achieved at the time, and most inspired others to create examples that emulated their evolution.
The question now becomes, "What's next?" My belief is that, with the proliferation of new types of consumption in the form of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, we're on the precipice of an entirely new level of interactivity and stickiness. I, for one, can't wait to see where we go.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.