Paid search advertising has changed. The dynamic auction environment has transformed our online advertising world forever. It requires specialized knowledge that defies the media model as we know it. The process of managing hundreds, perhaps thousands requires an intimate knowledge of each provider's unique attributes.
In the instance of commercial search engine advertising -- be it auction-based sponsored listings with Google AdWords or large scale inclusion programs like Yahoo!'s Search Submit -- getting some help from the search providers could be a requisite requirement of effective program management. Since few industry guidelines exist in the search space, top providers have stepped forward to provide education and various levels of distinction to agencies, search engine marketing firms and other third parties that guide search marketing efforts.
Do these requirements and guidelines provide some with an unfair advantage in the space? Conversely, does showing preference to a publisher negate the inherent benefits of retaining a third party to act in your best interests as an advertiser?
Let's take a good long look at the new search era.
Origins of caste
How has the need for a publisher stamp of approval arisen in this advertiser-driven world? Way back in the 1990s when online advertising got started, publishers were often frustrated with the amount of time it took traditional marketers and agencies to drink the online advertising Kool-Aid. It didn't take too long before said publishers began bypassing agencies in favor of pitching the clients directly.
Raise your hand if you have a story about a "web economy provider" that had a plan to "engage 24/7 content" in order to "target transparent paradigms" for the low low factory discount price of only 13 million dollars per month. After a few months of negotiation (read: proposal shelved), said offer would be paired down to about 13 thousand dollars a year. The agency role was once again apparent and the "bypass the agency" mantra faded for a bit.
Fast forward to 2004. Search engine advertising has taken on an entirely new form. It moved out of the tech department, but it's still complicated, difficult to understand and has no place in the media department. We went right back to 1999 with a few hiccups in search, but for the most part we are seeing search sites exhibit a much more intelligent and suave approach today. Forget the direct pitch, now you have to be certified.
I am Google enough, smart enough…
And doggonit people search on me, so listen up! Google has a simplified approach to helping agencies and search marketing intermediaries along with its "Google Advertising Professional" qualification program.
If you really want a case study on smart search advertising application and solid channel development, check out Yahoo! Search (formerly Overture; formerly GoTo.Com; formerly those guys with the big plastic Ducks). Yahoo! has created a reseller hierarchy that would make even the finest frequent traveler loyalty program green with envy.
For starters, there's the Ambassador Program. According to Yahoo!, this program was designed to "help high-performing search engine marketers (SEMs), agencies and other resellers drive targeted sales leads to their clients."
Now that's a real nice way of saying, we'd like to help you hapless nudniks sell more advertising.
Yahoo! Ambassadors receive all kinds of benefits, like more seasoned professionals to work with, marketing tools and faster editorial clearance, which means your listings don't have to wait as long to go online. One can also be a Local Sponsored Search Ambassador, a Search Submit (paid inclusion to you and me) Ambassador, and a Marketing Tools (performance measurement) Ambassador.
As if that weren't enough, there are higher levels of ambassadorship. There's the Yahoo! Certified Ambassador, for "higher-performing agencies and SEMs" and the grand exalted Yahoo! Strategic Provider "top-tier agencies and SEMs" if you really want to run with the big dogs.
Does any of this remind you of your preferred airline's loyalty program? From where I am sitting it sounds like the faster I sign up, the sooner I will be sitting with the important people up front.
Capitalism at its finest
Slow down there, Turbo, we have a few things to discuss. Let's go ahead and take a look at your spending levels, Mr. Search Marketer. Why don't you grab a seat in the waiting room while we run your credit and see how the numbers come up?
Once again, Google has the most straightforward approach. An individual can sign up for the Advertising Professionals program and for 90 days must maintain a minimum $1,000 budget, along with taking an exam to show your expertise at Google. If you would like your organization to be "qualified," you must spend at least $100,000 in this 90 day period, be based in the United States, and employ at least five "Qualified Google Advertising Professionals."
Yahoo!'s requirements are an exercise in complicated excitement. Though spending minimums are not disclosed, the highest tier, "Strategic Partner," requires that a firm must meet all the requirements of each lower tier certification. In short, you must prove a level of expertise in sponsored search, local, and measurement. This means you have to be selling everything Yahoo! offers very well.
All off this adds up to one thought in my mind: you can have the smartest people in the world on your search marketing team, but if you aren't spending the big bucks, it's the back of the bus for you -- at least in the eyes of the seller.
Partner or unparalleled bias?
Ever race to the airport on a Friday afternoon, praying to Hermes that you make it in time to get the business class upgrade? Of course, you arrive only to find that a higher tier loyalty member has beaten you to the punch, and you are doomed to the pit of coach for the next four hours. Maddening, isn't it?
Should your spending level similarly determine your role in the search marketing food chain? After all, it is a search engine, and results should be closely tied to relevance first and dollars second, right? Then again, paid search is a dynamic bidding environment. There are few buying efficiencies, so it really doesn't matter how much you spend, you shouldn't get "bumped" by a higher tier loyalty member.
There might be a couple of other issues here as well. Who audits the "exams" that one must take to become qualified? What does it really mean that you have to demonstrate a level of expertise? Demonstrate what? Your ability to generate more revenue for search sites?
Frequent emails to key partners offering incentives for increasing sales have become the norm in the search business. While many advertising firms and clients limit publishers in providing gifts, taking care of top revenue generators in advertising is nothing new, although assigning sales goals and gifts certainly is. One email promised a "Grand Prize" that included high end electronics and a dinner with publisher execs to the provider that generated the most new revenue. I am sure agency representatives in this classification will not feel beholden to the publisher in the slightest.
I would have thought dinner would be included with that kind of cash. As an agency senior manager, I would want to spend as much time as possible with my constituency as a matter of course, though it's not my idea of a grand prize.
Suicide is painless
Perhaps I am being a bit harsh. Search providers have had to take matters into their own hands to make sure the, ahem, resellers have created an environment that is more akin to a new millennium surgical operating room, as opposed to search marketing M.A.S.H. units.
A lack of standards in the business has led to sellers leading the way in organizing best practices and enforcing their own standards. They have optional requirements, classifications, and even certification guidelines for becoming better resellers.
Lately I have noticed that search marketing partner requests for information have included questions about the potential's relationship with search sites. For the first time in recorded advertising history, the opinion of a media seller has begun to weigh on the minds of advertisers.
Does that mean it's a good idea?
Smart marketers develop partnerships with firms that will act in their best interests. Should it really matter how adept you have become as a reseller? Doesn't that fly in the face of the unbiased nature of the agency relationship? Will you think twice the next time someone tells you they are certified? Drop me a line and tell me what you think.
Some of the statements made in this week's column would not have been possible without the assistance of the web economy, uh, language generator.
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, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Ryan is chief strategy officer at Zunch Communications.
Another major problem that I see many of these campaigns run into is that some campaigns are not set up properly from a cookie tracking standpoint. Publishers drop their cookies and marketers drop their own individual cookies on a per-publisher level.
This means that each consumer is only tracked within the walls of a single publisher and is not being followed throughout an entire campaign.
So what can a marketer do?
A marketer can develop its cookie-tracking strategy so that every time there is exposure to an individual user (regardless of what network it is on) the same cookie is dropped, allowing marketers to track consumers across multiple networks. To make this work effectively, besides just dropping a cookie, a marketer must implement frequency-capping strategies where after a certain level of desired exposure is reached, a customer will no longer get the exposure from this marketer’s message.
Another way to avoid buying a same customer twice is by only purchasing one ad unit size with multiple publishers. You can reduce the potential that your ad will be seen on the same page coming from multiple publishers at the same time by only buying one ad unit size, as the majority of publishers only run one particular ad unit size per page.
Too many ads?
An easy way to avoid buying the same customer twice is to ask for specific publisher lists from ad networks on a pre-campaign basis. Make sure while you are going through the list that there are no overlapping publisher names and that no additional publisher is being added onto the campaign while it is running.
Additionally, there is always the option to select ad networks that function as rep firms. Ad rep firms have exclusive relationships with the publisher and, therefore, the same customer cannot be exposed twice.
Another plan to reduce the risk of buying the same customer twice is to look at your target audience and try to deeply segment them into smaller groups. Once you have defined niche vertical target audiences, you can potentially reach out to all ad networks, large and small, and try to find specific site verticals or publisher verticals that are on the opposite side of the scale to ensure they are not overlapping.
Once niche personas have been identified, the other option would be to go to vertical ad networks, which have the ability to generate high conversion rates and have been rising steadily in popularity.
In summary, the issue of reaching the same customer twice should be top-of-mind for all marketers. Marketers need to be aware of it, and at the same time they need to recognize that there is no single way of avoiding this risk.
There are, however, certain tactics that can help reduce the risk, such as engaging with ad networks that have exclusive relationships for the inventory, ensuring that your cookie tracking is set up properly and identifying clearly-defined segments to buy on a per-segment basis.
In my opinion, until ad networks are clearly providing a refined list of publishers, this issue will always occur, but it is important to note that it is also the responsibility of the marketer to reduce the risk.
Digital agencies are still built on the traditional agency philosophy "creative is king."
The focus of ad agencies has always been on delivering award-winning creative -- that visual and accompanying tag line that people will remember long after the campaign is over. Mr. Whipple asking, "Please don't squeeze the Charmin." A sexy woman singing, "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan." Or, most recently, a baby mouthing "that milkaholic Lindsay."
Today's digital agencies continue to strive for that same fame, albeit through their own (fast growing) set of digital marketing award programs and public social forums. There's no doubt the agency that created the now famous Monkey Mail had its 15 minutes of fame; however, there are thousands of new competitors just waiting for their turn in the spotlight. They are clever, creative, and hungry. They are the consumers. And they are outshining many agencies today in a highly visible way, with clients taking notice.
So what's an agency to do? Adopt the tried and true client philosophy that "revenue is king." Focus on the connection between a communications program/campaign the agency develops and real revenue implications for the client. Revenue can mean gross sales (e.g., Dell's use of Twitter). But it can also equal savings that go straight to the bottom line. For example, AMP's recent iPR work for an international brand generated media placements that would have required more than $1 million in net media expense to replicate.
Work in collaboration with clients to establish the benchmarks that make sense for their situation -- true business benchmarks that can be used to justify the agency expense. Sexy is fun, but cash is still king to clients.
Digital agencies are still operated like a traditional agency business.
The traditional agency model is quite clever -- there are many "branded specialty groups" (media, PR, healthcare) that allow independent agencies to service multiple clients without hitting the conflict wall. And the holding companies have taken this to a whole new level with their digital divisions. They have separately branded (and operated) search, iPR, web development, online media buying, branded entertainment, social, and mobile agencies. This traditional model generates more gross revenue for the agency up front. However, it creates more conflicts (and costs) for both the agency and the client when multiple digital disciplines are involved.
Each day, the boundaries continue to blur between where paid media and search end and social media begins, or channels that are considered traditional versus digital. Consider the following examples. If digital content is delivered via traditional billboards, does the traditional media agency or the digital media agency manage the program? If one agency is retained for iPR and one for SEO, which one optimizes the digital press release? If display is outperforming search but two (commissionable) agencies are involved, who makes the call to re-allocate the budget?
Agencies and clients should evaluate this in a whole new light. First, conflicts can be good for the agency and the client when managed appropriately. There are so many new channels to leverage, why wouldn't a client want an agency that has current benchmarks and relationships marketing similar products and services working for them? And why wouldn't an agency want to minimize the up-front time required to train a team when onboarding a new client? The ability to use behavioral, segmented digital strategies unique to each client should remove any true conflicts.
Second, digital marketing requires integration -- not separation. Today, more than ever, a client should demand the efficiencies that come from a program that can be quickly optimized across multiple digital channels by one team. In-fighting is out. Integration is in.
Digital agencies forget that basic human needs, emotions, and behaviors don't change just because the technology evolves.
Excuse the sociology lecture for a moment. But consider this: Humans have always needed to communicate with each other. They need to grow their own sense of "self" through their interaction with others. They need praise and recognition. They need a sense of belonging. We are and will continue to be highly social beings. These basic human needs have not changed since we first walked upright, nor will they change over the next 50 years, even as technology evolves. Technology simply enables humans to fulfill those needs and conduct those behaviors in different ways.
Mobile still fulfills the same need for us to communicate with others as the traditional land line, only now it can include SMS and MMS. Word of mouth has always been a mighty marketing tool. It happened between two neighbors over a white picket fence 20 years ago, and now it happens between strangers on TripAdvisor. "Keeping up with the Joneses" denoted status in the '60s, now replaced now by Twitter followers or Facebook friends in 2010.
Digital agencies that look at the evolution of technology to predict their target consumers' behavior will not succeed. The agencies that will thrive will invest heavily in gaining real consumer insight about the rational and emotional drivers of a given behavior for the target audience so the communication is authentic and relevant -- and then look at the technology options for delivering the message. The risks of engaging with an audience before you truly understand its mindset are real and potentially catastrophic, particularly in this world of social media.
Digital agencies don't (but should) operate more like publishers given today's consumer-generated content landscape.
To be clear, I am not suggesting agencies mirror the models of print publishers, as that industry has clearly suffered because it did not evolve its business model fast enough. However, there are two key components of the traditional publishing model that do make great sense for digital agencies. The first is the idea of "commissioning" more of the content from consumers versus relying on full-time professional copywriters. I realize many agencies do use freelancers, but never give that freelancer any brand recognition -- it is always the "agency's" work. I would challenge them to consider including more consumers and bloggers in their agency pool of talent, and "brand" that talent for clients and consumers to see. The voice is authentic, there's instant credibility, and what consumer wouldn't want to tell their friends to check out their work?
The second is the idea of a distributed marketing and sales strategy. Paid media may remain the cornerstone for deployment of a timely communications plan because it is predictable, controllable, and measurable -- the same way paid subscriptions are the cornerstone of a print publisher's sales plan. But publishers take it a step further with additional "value add" brand distribution strategies -- for example, offering comp print copies or offering respected writers or execs as guest speakers at association- or advertiser-sponsored events. While there is a minimal direct expense, the ability to penetrate an audience beyond subscription sales, with a level of predictability and control beyond that of traditional PR or viral/social, is worth the investment.
Digital agencies must work with clients to come up with "value add" brand distribution strategies to leverage their own assets (content, product, people), while being careful to put in place some level of measurement to judge the impact against expense. AMP recently did such a program for Vibram, offering free products and turnkey support for a contest that influential consumers could leverage to promote themselves on the web. The investment was minimal, and the results were impressive and measurable.
The digital industry still hides measurement "behind the curtain."
Help me out: Does anyone else scratch their heads and ask, "If consumers are willing to post pictures of their trips and activities for all to view on Facebook, and their exact locations at a given point in time on Foursquare, why would they be worried about deleting one cookie that would enable them to see more relevant banner ads when they surfed the web?" It just doesn't make sense -- unless you go back to those basic human emotions of trust and control. And clearly, consumers don't trust digital agencies right now when it comes to measurement because they feel they have no control. And trade associations are doing little to help.
The ARF Digital Media Council currently provides programs that will "zero in on innovation, strategy, marketplace experience, and research," but there is no mention that such strategy will include seeking consumer cooperation. The IAB did launch the "Privacy Matters" campaign and website in late 2009 to "educate and provide consumers with resources for managing their privacy online"; however, there is little information provided about the true benefits, with most information focused on how to "protect" privacy.
If digital agencies really want to move measurement forward -- not just to get the numbers but to really use the information to improve campaign performance -- they must take the lead in pushing for more open-source measurement strategies and tactics that actively involve the input and cooperation of consumers. This is the only way to establish the trust necessary to move beyond cookies.
The rapid rise of social media has now put consumers in more control. Every client wants to leverage this "earned" influence, but are the right practices in place to garner valuable, sustained loyalty? The rapid evolution of digital technology has now allowed more bells and whistles in marketing, but when are they really driving business? So in closing, I remind digital agency executives to remember:
1. Focus, focus, focus: Don't lose sight of who your customers are and what they expect from their agency. It's our job to help clients prove their marketing efforts are increasing business -- that's the one thing consumers can't do for them (yet). At the end of the day, cash is still king.
2. Rethink the plan: The digital revolution is changing the face of our business, so the agency model needs to transform right along with it. Agencies should be challenging themselves to create (or borrow) models that align with, and take full advantage of, the digital revolution. At the same time, agencies must educate their clients so they willingly accept these improved models as a real benefit.
3. Times might be changing, but some behaviors remain the same: The consumer is first, and the technology should be secondary. Understanding the emotional drivers of a given target audience is -- and will always be -- key. Just go back to the emotional basics; humans respond to praise, recognition, a sense of belonging, and -- always -- authentic communication. The wrong message delivered through the hottest, fastest, novel application will ultimately result in a very public mistake.
4. Trust is earned: These consumers are now the content creators with the power to propagate, so we should not discount their contributions to the growth of digital agency business. So I'd take it a step further: If consumers are the new "publishers," isn't it time we engage them in the agency talent pool? Instead of turning them off to privacy and measurement issues, shouldn't we invite their participation?
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Great storytelling should be the main goal of any content creator, and the online space is no different. However, unlike traditional video platforms like television, it's much harder to monetize online video. Instead of formulating a strategy after the creation of the new web series, Bernie Su and his team began by thinking about the best way to position "Emma Approved" to be best suited for branded opportunities and monetizing social media. Here's how they accomplished that goal and how you can do the same on a larger scale.
Like its predecessor, "Emma Approved" is a web series designed to tell a story not just with video but through various media. "The Lizzie Bennet Diaries" focused on video and social media. The amazing milestone that "Emma Approved" has accomplished is becoming a five-medium series featuring video, social, text (blogging), photos, and music. Here's how all of this translates into substantial financial sustainability, as well as a look at the strategy involved in making sure each medium relates seamlessly to the others.
How do you conduct product placement so it doesn't feel like product placement? The creative minds behind "Emma Approved" have found a successful strategy that can work for any video with a solid story: partnering with brands and seeding them into the narrative without mentioning them by name. In "Emma Approved," Emma wears a Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch, but she just calls it her "smart watch." Saying the name of the brand would feel out of place, not only for the audience watching but also for the narrative. Here's why letting your online audience absorb brands through storytelling -- rather than advertising -- could be a successful tactic for your video marketing.
Every product can have a story, which is why Bernie Su and his team were happy to undertake branded partnerships. There's nothing wrong with pushing a product if it accomplishes two goals: furthers your own content's narrative in a natural way and doesn't become a distraction. Brands need to take this concept and apply it to strategy even if they are not involved in the video world at all. Every brand can use its products to further its own brand narrative. Every brand has a story to tell. Instead of advertising your products, conduct creative marketing initiatives that give your brand a voice through your products.
Lastly, if your brand has a personality, you don't really need to market. Yes, Apple, Red Bull, Chipotle, and Virgin still advertise, but those brands have found their narratives. Apple customers aren't persuaded to buy Apple products because of a billboard; they do it because they want to be part of Apple's story. That's the main ingredient in online video content marketing -- a personality so strong and likable that buying that brand's products means feeling like a part of it. Find your voice, put it on video, and attract an audience naturally. That's a creative way you can accomplish your marketing goals.
Article written by David Zaleski.
Videos edited by Associate Media Producer Brian Waters.
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"Spices" image via Shutterstock.