We live in the most sophisticated marketing environment the world has ever known. We spend billions of dollars doing market research to understand target behavior and how we can better reach intended audiences.
We conduct interviews, collect surveys and build profiles -- we know our audience. We study their every move so that we can look like one of them as we try to sell them our crap. We learn their deepest desires, their needs and try to anticipate future wants so we can be there. We hire magnificently-pricey creative talent to help construct the most compelling advertisements, while our media departments develop comprehensive placements.
Then, we launch a search marketing initiative and somehow forget it all. We want them to use our language instead of theirs. Worse, we arrogantly assume omnipotence in audience knowledge. We have packed our own, triple-checked all of our gear, and proceeded to jump out of the plane without strapping the parachute on.
The BASE-is of knowledge
Case in point; I took up a new sport recently. Riding my motorcycle around California freeways wasn’t dangerous enough anymore, and jumping out of a perfectly-good airplane no longer excited me, so I decided to try BASE jumping. BASE, an acronym for building, antennae, span and earth, represents places from which one freefalls. In a nutshell, one straps on a parachute and proceeds to jump off a fixed structure.
Most BASE jumping experts agree that you must first learn to skydive. The mechanics are very similar. And since I had a few years of free fall jumps, I needed only a few refreshers on DZ targeting and PC techniques while avoiding zero-porosity canopies. Have any idea what I just said? BASE jumpers do, and despite what you might think, most of them are not suicidal. While I’ll grant you some may not be the shiniest apples in the barrel, these guys (non-gender specific term) buy a ton of crap.
Good luck trying to find said crap with a search engine. There are few, if any, equipment manufacturers of BASE specific equipment. That is to say, BASE gear is often borrowed from other sports like skydiving. The big picture here is most sites do not optimize for niche language. An Overture search for "BASE jumping" provided me a link to a child’s toy. BASE enthusiasts along with hundreds of other niche audiences can be served search results in a most efficient manner by using some additional jump parameters.
What’s a "tuner?"
I have a few names for them. How about annoying? Idiotic? How about your neighbor’s kid who inherits the ’95 Honda Civic upon turning 16, and proceeds to start tricking the car out in lieu of saving for college. The first step, it seems, would be the purchase of a deafening flatulence-simulating muffler to be used while driving around your suburban neighborhood at 3 a.m. Tuners, aside from being a bit misguided about financial responsibility and social conscience, do in fact spend money and, like BASE jumpers, speak their own language.
My fellow road warrior, Ron Belanger, vice president of search for Carat Interactive, developed a unique strategy for reaching tuners for an automotive manufacturer client. "The idea was to segment potential buyers; possibly away from the traditional mindset of who we thought were buying our client’s vehicles," says Belanger. They found these tuners who, on average spent $3,000 to $10,000 a month hopping up low end cars. "We unearthed a whole new language and with it, a cost effective means of reaching a new audience for our client," Belanger says.
Advertisers often ask me how to find cheap keywords. While BASE jumpers are an example of a completely undiscovered search audience, the tuner situation is a prime example of an opportunity for locating cheap keywords within a very competitive category. A top position for the "automobile" keyword is going to run you in the neighborhood of four bucks a click. Plug in your tuner lingo, and a bid on the keyword "scissor door” will cost about 25 cents. Likewise the "suspension" keyword is about a buck, yet the purist street-racing miscreant will be searching for a "coilover kit" at about a 10 cent cost per click.
Where to start looking
Aside from collecting offline data and, dare I say, applying it to the online universe, log files -- the second most underutilized arena for locating search terms -- won’t do you much good in discovering a new audience or serving an existing niche. The idea is to reach an audience that is currently not aware of your existence.
Also, traditional keyword suggestion tools might not be the best way to go. Both suggestive keyword and log analysis have their place in the grand scheme of search engine marketing development, but their inherently narrow focus just won’t help you find the goods.
You have to go where base jumpers eat, sleep and breathe. Places where tuners find the latest hip parts that can be bolted on, stolen or picked up on the side of the freeway. The foundation of the World Wide Web, the original promise, the dream of the Internet: places of free information. In other words, chat rooms, weblogs and discussion boards.
There’s a Yahoo! discussion for just about every activity on the planet. Google also has a directory area with a broad range of subject matter categories. Both of these sites offer a great launching point for discovering language and interests that could be specific to your next great audience.
In any case, the process of discovery is a manual, arduous one and messaging has to be taken quite seriously. For instance "Bridge Day" is a jumper’s paradise site, yet paid search results lead to tips on how to beat opponents at the card game. Many of the new terms you locate may also have meanings you are unprepared to have your brand positioned against. Searchers for information or commerce related activity on the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, may find their listings living among a less than relevant crowd. Words of advice: cross-check those listings before buying positions.
Paid, optimized and included
I’m a big proponent of buying keywords no one else is buying. One, you get the word cheaply and two, you now have messaging timeliness latitude. All too often, we forget just how new paid search advertising is, and how much great expanse exists in undiscovered country because we narrowly focus on high-traffic paid categories.
Generally speaking, the more specific and underused terms are, the easier it is to get ranked in natural search as well. Now before I get myself into trouble, I am not saying ranking is easy. I am simply saying getting rankings in less crowded portions of indexes is a somewhat less daunting task. Longer more specific phrases, less chatter means higher rankings if you remember to make sure meta content is up to speed.
Effectiveness on their terms
The new-found audience reach is no reason to ignore tried and true category and keyword selection. Opening the door to a new audience via niche keyword selection may not help you reach the billions of searching masses, but it may help you fill a much needed or unrealized void. So, whether you are looking for a rigger to set up a go and throw with a 42" pc, or trying to locate a really handy way to turn your '92 Honda Civic hatchback into a 'Fast and Furious' candidate, discovering new audiences with search terms is only a discussion board or chat room away.
About the Author: This is the part of the column that talks about all of the magnificent things I’ve done. Frankly, after traveling around the country in the past few weeks and meeting many of you who read my stuff, this week, I would like to offer a very humble "thanks" for reading. You guys really make foregoing a normal life and my tireless efforts to deliver new and different content every week worthwhile. Thanks again. And now, the self-aggrandizing bio…
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.
Meet Ryan at Ad:Tech May 24-26th, 2004.
What is the general objective of a brand?
The objective of a brand strategy is to accomplish branding. And branding's goal is to instigate an irrational response in a person who encounters it. When all is said and done, stripped to its underwear, branding's goal is to get someone to pay more for something that they can pay less for -- given that something has another source. There are ancillary effects branding needs to accomplish, too. It must serve as shorthand for a host of attributes that, once awareness and familiarity are established, moves one towards purchase and advocacy, namely, consideration, preference, and intent. But it all boils down to getting someone to respond irrationally. Which, it's important to note, is how most of us respond to most things. So, how do you do that? Appeal to emotions.
Most purchase decisions are not rational ones. In fact, most of the decisions we make are not rational -- those decisions are rationalized later. In order for a brand to elicit an irrational response on the part of the consumer, it must appeal to emotions. The brand strategy must be built against that goal.
The place to start for such an exercise is with the product or service. No matter how ethereal the constituents of a "brand" might be, there must be something that occupies real space around which concepts are wrapped -- that "something stony," as Ezra Pound would call it -- that can serve as tangible proxies for the feelings a brand manifests.
The following are five questions that guide the brand strategy development process.
What does the product or service do?
This is the practical identity of what is being advertised. Beer? A car? Financial services? There has to be some "there" there where the brand begins and back upon which the brand reflects.
Let's use "beer" as our example. What does it do? Basically, it quenches thirst. But it also imparts certain flavors. It also has alcohol, which possesses a number of noumenal and phenomenal qualities that are known to instigate a number of changes in the person who drinks it. It is also frequently consumed in certain social environments. In the modern first world we have pretty safe drinking water, so thirst quenching is of little or no importance. So you need to choose one, or several, of the other things the product does to serve as your starting point for developing the brand.
Flavor, good feelings (strategically ignoring that those feelings come from the foreshortened sense of consequences due to intoxication), and the occasions for it to be drunk are all starting points for the emergent branding enterprise for "beer." Now, start filling that first white board!
What need does it fill? What space does it occupy?
This is really related to the point above. But it moves the development of the brand from the product or service's specific purpose to a more generalized concept of its identity. It's like going from "poodle" to "dog."
Why would this be necessary? It is to universalize to some degree what you are seeking to sell. Yes, bark as a particular dog, but in doing so, you bark for all dogs. The appeal has to be what I like to call "generally specific." Regardless of what the digeristas would have you believe, one-to-one marketing is not a perennially applicable strategy; it is an occasionally applicable tactic.
Sticking with "beer" the need being filled -- and remember, in marketing, "need" is frequently synonymous with "want" -- could be… oh, great taste? Less filling? That combination of hipster-hops and malted barely that brings you and your bros together? Is the beer organic? Sustainably farmed hops? Made according to the purity law of 1516? Will buying it contribute to saving the world?
Fill the next white board!
Is the space that product or service occupies own-able? Sharable?
After you've completed the two aforementioned tasks, which are really more or less parts of the same task, you have to determine if the space is ownable; and if not ownable, is it at least shareable? Realize that it's preferable to own the space, but if there's plenty of room, it's possible to share. If Miller Lite hadn't owned both "tastes great" and "less filling" in the light beer space, it could conceivably have been shared. Sharing is also possible if dissimilar products occupy the space. For example, both an automotive and a medical products company can share family safety.
How do you own a space? This is when it becomes necessary to understand the emotional content of needs filled and spaces occupied. Are there emotional analogies? How does the intended audience feel about great taste, less filling, or hanging out with their bros? This is where it is time to determine how you are going to tap the limbic system.
Does the space that product occupies have an emotional analogy?
Tastes great and less filling were able to work because the presentation of the concepts had an emotional appeal, namely, it entertains. But part of the entertainment value derived from the already established notion that light beer couldn't be either. So the wrinkled nose and the frown were replaced with a smile and the raised eyebrows of surprise. The expectation of disgust and a concern with health are replaced with the amazement of good flavor and the freedom from worry about calories. "Amazement," "freedom," "worry." These are the ideas that matter and are necessary to manifest, not "flavor" or "health."
SUVs were sold successfully not because of their ability to navigate rugged terrain, or because their carriage capacity appealed to the consumer. It was because moms felt the SUV would keep their kids safe in an accident. That seems rational: big + sturdy = safe. But it was first the fear of harming kids that drove the decision. The fact that SUVs are involved in more accidents would seem to have no bearing on the purchase decision. The conclusion of "safe" was post action, as was the rationale of navigating rugged terrain or having more room to carry stuff. A solid brand strategy must find the emotional trigger in order to activate it.
Is there any "white space" where invention is possible?
This is the final question to be answered. Is there a place your product or service can be that doesn't exist yet? In the burgeoning social app and technology space, this seems more possible than it is in the beer or auto space. But those, too, might have "white space" to occupy. It is the white space where disruption is possible not only as a product or service development objective, but as a brand attribute for that product or service. The white space is where invention is not only possible but also necessary. Portable music was an old concept; the MP3 was a new format; the iPod is a disruptive device that brought both together in a way that, before it, no one conceived they needed it. Now, no one can live without it.
A brand strategy is more a pedagogical exercise conducted with the product or service at the center than it is a linear process of rote action. Especially now, when the marketplace is more of a conversation than it's ever been, a brand strategy has to concern itself not just with what the advertiser wants to say, but it with what the advertiser will have to talk about. That conversation can be about the tangible elements about the product or service -- an articulation of function -- but if it doesn't contain the intangibles of feelings, there's no brand. It's just a lump of stuff. A metal box with wheels. A yellow, sudsy liquid in a white can with black letters stamped on it that reads "beer."
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"Confused young businessman" image via Shutterstock.
Digital marketing, in general
- I sincerely hate change.
- Digital marketing is difficult to accurately measure, so cut me some slack!
- I do not feel that a keen understanding of overall business objectives is important to my efforts.
- Honestly, I think traditional marketing only gets in the way of what I'm trying to do in digital.
- Investing time in reading industry blogs, publications, and books; listening to webinars and podcasts; and attending industry seminars, conferences, workshops, or networking events is a colossal waste of time.
- My boss and/or clients are stupid and don't understand why I need more budget to get my job done.
- Renting third-party email lists is bombproof.
- I only need to know search engine marketing or social media, but not both.
- It doesn't really matter where a lead comes from, as long as I hit my numbers.
- These Gen Y kids really get digital. I just let them do their thing.
- Customers are generally misinformed and don't know what they're talking about online.
- If you think about it, you can boil down digital marketing strategies into a simple formula.
Search engine marketing
- The only reason Panda or Penguin would affect my business is if they escape from the zoo and stampede my office.
- Getting a top position in search results is all about keyword-stuffing as well as cheaply outsourcing content and link development activities.
- Nobody uses Bing or Yahoo for search, so I only invest in Google AdWords.
- Google+ is a complete waste of time.
- Landing page testing isn't worth the effort, as it doesn't make that much of a difference.
- I get plenty of in-store visitors, so why would I need to promote my business via local search?
- There is no easy way to target my prospective customers in search, especially at a local level.
- I don't click on PPC ads, so why would anyone else?
- What's this you say about Bing and Yahoo merging ad platforms?
Social media marketing
- I only spend time on all of these social platforms because I have to for work.
- Social media is an unavoidable nuisance and should be outsourced to a "guru" or agency.
- Social media is all about sharing company news and doing contests to increase my fan base.
- Facebook is for consumer brands, and LinkedIn is for business-to-business brands.
- My latest strategy is to promote our corporate Facebook profile address in our print and broadcast advertising, instead of our website.
- It's all about Facebook "likes" and Twitter followers!
- To save time, I just post the same content to all of my social profiles.
- Video marketing is too expensive and time-consuming.
- We're not spending time on YouTube because people only use it to watch videos about cats and people getting hit in the groin with footballs.
- I don't have the time or resources to create an image strategy on Pinterest or Instagram.
- We can ignore online reviews because nobody reads them.
- My business has not been affected by negative press or customer reviews.
- Social media should be done by the youngest person in the office because they grew up with it.
- Facebook and Twitter work for all products and all audiences, all the time. No research needed!
- No one reads or uses forums or blogs, so we don't waste our time with either.
- Content should only be created when employees are done with "real" work and have nothing else to do.
- Transparency is a bad idea in social media.
- Social media is a fun way to interact with fans, but it doesn't have any real value.
- Social media doesn't generate any revenue!
- Social media is going to generate a ton of revenue!
- I'm investing in MySpace because JT is bringing the sexy back.
- I use my smartphone primarily for making phone calls.
- Everything digital is automatically mobile-friendly nowadays.
- Mobile marketing is too expensive and complex to create a viable ROI.
- Anyone with a smartphone can access my site if they want, so there's no need to optimize it.
- I prefer to text my tweets from my feature/flip-phone.
- I prefer not to remind customers to review us online in case they had a bad experience.
- QR codes are the next big thing in mobile marketing.
- I just joined Foursquare!
If any of the above statements resonate with you at face value, consider staying away from digital marketing as a career. If the above statements seem to be outlandish, naïve, or just plain ignorant, you might well be on your way to a successful career in digital marketing. For an explanation behind the aforementioned statements, please read the articles below. Lastly, feel free to add your own statements to this article in the comments section below.
Recommended reading for aspiring digital marketers:
"Get Beyond Click and Conversions" (six requirements for a value-added SEM vendor)
"Carrying case" image via Shutterstock.