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SearchTHIS: Much Ado About Searching

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS: Much Ado About Searching Kevin M. Ryan

Absolutely nothing happened in search last week. Well, there were a few possible exceptions. All over the world search marketers optimized pages, developed keyword lists, studied return on advertising spending figures and adjusted artificial intelligence on bid management tools.

Come to think of it, there were a few thousand people in the Chicago Sheraton, attending ad:tech. Details are a little sketchy, but as I recall there were discussions about online advertising innovation from one or two big brands' decision makers like Motorola, Purina and E-Loan.

There were discussions about budgets, brand persuasions, blogvertising (heaven help us) and -- wait a minute -- one or two thoughts on search marketing. You know what? Now that I think about it, there may have been one or two slices of Chicago style worth sharing.

Nothing but us search marketers

If you had chosen to brave deep-dish-pizza town last week to bone up on search, then you would have been treated to a few smart sessions on search engine marketing. Some of the search-focused conference rooms were slightly less than packed, which allowed for some fantastic one-on-one discussions.

Sitelab co-founder Dana Todd and Range Online's CEO Cheryl Pingel led a sharp discussion on the tools of the search marketing trade in a paid search session designed for gurus. Smartest words of advice in a search session to date? Don't leave those low volume keywords behind. Just because less than millions of people a day are not searching for a particular term doesn't mean you shouldn't be buying it.

Yours truly appeared with Greg Sterling, senior vice president of the Kelsey Group. We had a lively discussion about the search landscape, vendor selection, and the broad spectrum of user behavior. Key thoughts included the need for simplified click fraud and brand usage monitoring in paid search. Sterling cited multiple sources with sobering research on buying behavior:

  • 92 percent of purchases influenced by search in the CE/C category were made offline (comScore 2004)

  • 74 percent of survey respondents say they research online and buy offline (BIGresearch 2005)

  • 62 percent of U.S. online consumers prefer to buy offline (Forrester, 2005)

How about those metrics? Still think you're tracking all of your return?

Nothing in common

Here's a thought that speaks to the mind of marketers. Interestingly enough, the same question popped up (from the same attendee) in the Todd/ Pingel session as the Sterling/ Ryan session. Is it better to hire separate firms for paid and natural search? For a complete answer, please pay close attention to the following paragraph.

Barbara Cole, chief executive of Webmamma, Inc. and Rob Garner of Agency.com discussed "Optimization Strategies and Tactics for Achieving High Visibility in Search Results." This get-back-to-basics session explored everything from search as a brand device or the all-too-popular sales tool. Cole offered an interesting twist on paid search as an organic or natural search optimization tool. Through effectively studying conversion rates from paid terms a site owner will learn key terms that should be optimized in the organic world.

Using every aspect of search in concert will lead to more effective search engine marketing and online advertising -- that's just the beginning of the knowledge fountain from search. Does that answer your question? 

Nothing but new metrics

Performics' Chris Henger, senior vice president of marketing and product development, stole the show with his study on search behavior, completed with a little help from comScore's mega panel. Speaking of comScore, vice president of research, James Lamberti, recounted the latest consumer electronics study with Yahoo! searchers completing 92 percent of sales offline.

Henger's study concluded that buyers conducted multiple related searches prior to making a purchase. Consider the travel category, which averaged six relevant searches in the 12 weeks before a transaction. Brand names were much more likely to be used closer to a purchase. Once again, in the travel category, nine percent of clicks occurred in the same session as the purchase, and 49 percent of these clicks included a merchant's brand name.

Ladies and gentleman, may I introduce you to a wonderful new concept? Let's call it the pre-purchase desired action funnel. Drop me a line if you want a complete description and metric architecture, but let's start with reducing our collective dependence on brand terms as the sole revenue generator in search terms.

A success criteria overhaul may be in order for some, but getting senior managers to, ahem, buy into new metrics after being hooked on direct conversions for so long may be something of a task.

Not for nothing, try some feeds

The original master of moderation, Dan Boberg, senior director of partner programs and technology at Yahoo! Search, profiled the schizophrenic buying habits of shoppers: switching back and forth between buying terms and search sites is rule, rather than the exception for buyers, wherever they might complete the purchase.

We later heard from Matt Solomon, vice president of marketing at Priceline.com; Chris Bowler, vice president and media director for Agency.com; Carolyn Larson, senior manager of interactive marketing strategy for Carlson Hotels; and Lori Krzyewski, vice president of marketing and advertising for Barrie Pace: all of whom sung the praises of direct and ongoing communication with search sites.

They referred to the practice of providing feeds (large quantities of data in a digital format, also called paid inclusion feeds) to keep important pages top of search for advertisers. They pointed out a few key benefits of using feeds:

  • Keeping inventory fresh and indexed

  • Getting content, otherwise un-indexed onto search spider radar

  • Fast, easy and reliable ways to get inventory into shopping engines

Panelists were quick to point out that a feed is not a fire-and-forget missile. A program requires constant massaging, but it is oh so worth it.
Nothing, but nothing, can stop search

Every time I hop the plane, train or automobile home from ad:tech, I carry with me one overwhelming feeling. Some would call this the overall theme of the show. Maybe the "nothing" sensation I was having wasn't inspired by the lack of headline activity. It quite possibly could have been the absolute nothing one feels when confronted with the horrible realization that one's occupation is no longer the latest and greatest thing.

It's about time. All that search press was starting to get on my nerves.

Search got a couple of solid mentions in keynote sessions, but the most inspiring was a comment from Steve Pinetti, Kimpton Hotels' senior vice president of marketing. Mr. Pinetti referred to paid search marketing as something that was on its way to his marketing budget, and he knew it was going to be expensive. If a premium travel brand like Kimpton has yet to enjoy an important part of the search experience, this can mean only one thing: Search engine marketing may not be new and exciting, but it's still anyone's game to win. 
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.

Mr. Ryan is chief strategy officer at Zunch Communications.

iMedia: When you look at all the channels and possibilities that digital presents, what excites you most today?

Szulc: First, I get very enthused that consumers are in the driver's seat, willing to engage with brands that represent a "cause" that is relevant to each individual. This is not only going to be good for brands but will also be good for the world we live in. I firmly believe consumers will more and more reward brands who care, who take the time to understand them, and therefore interact with consumers on their own terms. In this world, more than ever, the idea trumps the medium. Very small investments can drive an enormous amount of energy and response from people who are willing to "carry your brand flag for you." I risk to say that it further evens the competitive playing field, providing more chances for any brand (independent of the size) to succeed. This will keep all us marketers up to speed and up to date.
The second thing I get very excited about is the ability to test, learn, and scale in a much easier, faster way than ever before. This is very powerful but requires leaders to be willing and able to embark on the journey of continuous learning and the understanding that great ideas can come from anywhere. Levi's is using several different marketing approaches to unlock creativity by making good use of digital.
iMedia: When you think about digital today, what worries you most?

Szulc: The level of complexity and change has grown in an exponential way. It is not anymore about reaching your target at the few touch points they relate to periodically. Each of us now relate to the world through many more touch points. And we relate to each of them in many different ways. This means we are all challenged to constantly re-evaluate our paradigms (from a personal and professional perspective) regarding the way we market products and brands. We also have to become better at evaluating alternative business models. No matter how big a brand or a company is, it is very difficult to be relevant (in a profitable way) across all touch points and your consumer base. This reinforces the importance of having consumers choose your brand and not the other way around -- it is a subtle change with a huge optics impact. 

iMedia: When you came on board at Levi, a new position was created for you -- global CMO. Can you explain what it means to be a global brand and how digital helps you shape and deliver the brand's message around the world?

Szulc: To me, a true global brand is one that has a clear, distinctive, and relevant identity, which is the same anywhere you go. Depending on the circumstances, it may solve the same specific problem, and/or promise the same benefit to consumers around the world. There's also the debate on the balance between global and local. This is as much of a governance issue as it is one of strategy. More uniformity of the brand message gives you a "global face," economies of scale and global deployment speed, while adding flexibility brings more local relevance. Each brand has to find its own balance. Digital made it easier for consumers to pick on the differences -- but the expansion of travelling and the internationalization of brands and retailers are also playing a key role.

The biggest challenge of my job at Levi Strauss is to find ways to fully unleash the huge potential of the brand, while leveraging the similarities that already unite us today. Within this context, digital is a huge enabler.

iMedia: Somewhere out there is a small or medium-sized digital agency that really wants a piece of your business. What can they do to impress you?

Szulc: There is an old movie in which a disguised man learns from a woman that all she wanted was a man who was honest and who would come up to her and say, "I want to go out with you because you are pretty." Well, later the undisguised man goes to her and says exactly that. The result is she gets insulted and leaves. Jokes apart, I expect the unexpected. In general terms, however, I'd say I appreciate people who are willing to work on a balanced scorecard basis, in a way that risks are assumed jointly and fees are almost always contingent on results. Our agency network architecture has to provide for that flexibility because there is no way for me or anyone on my team to randomly evaluate each potential partner in isolation.

iMedia: Over the last few years, we've heard a lot of talk about a blurring line between advertising and content. What do you make of that?

Szulc: We're in a world in which there is a lot of grey space -- between advertising and content, but also between media and content, mainly due to the internet. There are a few dynamics in place, among them there are two that I feel are most relevant to this matter: 1) The uncertainty of who will pay for "traditional media" content in a world where it is more and more commonly coming free from consumers (think YouTube and Wikipedia), and, 2) consumers growing resistance to a "push" marketing model (i.e. if you buy me, you become ).
Depending on how you look at it, this could really be an "unlock" for marketing creativity. You may use brand entertainment content by leveraging existing content or by creating content specifically for a media vehicle. At the same time, you may be using micro-targeting and traditional media. For us at Levi's, it is about being tuned into the energy and events of our times at all levels (product, marketing, channel, etc.) so that you maximize consumer engagement along your brand journey.
iMedia: With so many ways for a brand to connect with a consumer, from email, to search, to social media, how do you view the role of the main Levi's website?

Szulc: There are only a few places where consumers can fully experience the ultimate expression of the brand. The Levi's brand website is one of those few places, so it is hugely important. Having said that, from a digital perspective, there are several areas you can focus your efforts: community (e.g., Harley Davidson HOG), commerce (e.g., vertical retailers such as Wal-Mart), CRM (e.g., direct marketing companies), education web services (e.g., Pampers), etc. The two questions are: How does the investment in this asset compare with other potential investments, and within this asset, what is the best approach for the brand at this point in time?
iMedia: If there's one constant in digital, it's that technology is always changing. As a manager of a large marketing team, how do you make sure that your team is up to speed on the latest trends while keeping them focused on the day-to-day challenges of managing the Levi's brand?

Szulc: I see it as a mix between training, exposure to case studies, bringing expertise from the outside, and also trial and error (i.e. a huge appetite for learning). There's never a perfect combination, or if there is, it changes over time based on circumstances. Given the speed on how the space changes, you can never be up to date all the time. My experience says it is best to keep some of the core development and strategy separate from execution, so we are carefully choosing which projects have to be led by whom. But in some of the areas, such as blogging, the development is the execution and vice versa. So, in this case you need to have someone who can execute brilliantly and fast, and at the same time, is already thinking about what is coming next around the corner.

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


The brain has two basic types of memory -- short- and long-term. Branding occurs in the part of long-term memory called emotional memory. This is where the brain stores pain, joy, sorrow, love, etc. When you hear a song that reminds you of riding with your friends in your first car, when you smell something baking and remember your parents teaching you how to cook, or when you look at your life partner and your heart flutters remembering the first time you met, those memories are coming from your deep, emotional memory.

Everyday events become strong emotional memories through repetition, specifically three or more times. Marketers want consumers to have deep emotional commitments to their brands. That level of emotional commitment can only occur in deep memory and the transition from short-term to long-term to emotional memory starts with repetition.

The first time you tell somebody something, it goes into short-term memory. The brain is waiting for instructions on whether to forget it or store it for future (long-term) retrieval. The brain gets that instruction when you tell them the second time and when you add some sensory information to the message (we'll get to the sensory part in a second).

The third time you tell somebody something, you start fooling the brain into thinking whatever you're telling them is important. The brain basically says, "Boy, they're repeating that a lot. It must be important. I better remember it," and into long-term memory it goes.

But the brain can forget things even in long-term memory without sensory information to lock that information into place.

A sense of touch

Memories get into emotional memory when there's some kind of sensory information attached to them. This is why certain songs, images, smells, and people can evoke strong emotional memories while other things don't. Those strong sensory attachments cause our minds to magically transport us to the time and place when that memory was first encoded in our brains. We smell cookies baking today, and we're back in Grandma's kitchen as she pulled them from the oven. We grip a fly rod today and remember our fathers teaching us how to cast.

This sensory information -- sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch -- is easy to add to branding efforts. Color, font size, images, embedded videos, and audio feeds -- even well-written text -- can cause sensory attachments to otherwise neutral information. The trick is to make the link between the information and the sensory experience positive. This goes back to long-term memory, specifically associative memory, because this sensory information causes emotional responses that are associated with the original branding message and, you guessed it, drives whatever you're telling them into deep, emotional memory.

Have them look in a mirror

The single strongest branding element is trust. If someone you trust tells you that product A is a great product, you believe them. You don't ask for ancillary information or quiz them on their belief. Studies have shown that the highest levels of trust are with family members followed by peer group members. What marketers have intuitively known for years -- and what science is proving -- is that people trust their mirror-selves the most. In other words, the more a brand spokesperson looks like the target audience, the more positively that target audience responds to the brand.

Consumers will automatically attach a positive emotional memory to the branding information when the brand spokesperson looks, talks, acts, and thinks like them. It will be as if they're looking in a mirror, and they'll believe what they see in the mirror, even if they don't like it. The mirror-self's belief becomes the target audience's belief.

Use small words

There is a reason we use the term "small words" rather than "monosyllabic" when talking to children: "Small words" is easier to understand. Both terms mean the same thing, but most people take longer to understand the latter than the former.

That time difference in understanding has to do with neural processing and actionability. People don't look for subtleties of meaning with small words because we learned in childhood to pay attention and respond rather than deliberate. This ease of processing and understandability combined with a lack of subtlety translates into actionability and can be remembered as a simple formula:

Actionability = (ease of processing + understandability) - subtlety

People respond more easily and rapidly to simple statements than complex ones.

Use short sentences

Short sentences, or declaratives, and especially short sentences written clearly are more easily incorporated than complex parsings involving multiple conjunctives, disjunctives, and grammatical elements.

Consider where you slowed down when reading the above, and you get the idea.

Short sentences build on what the brain does with small words -- it understands them easily and rapidly. Short sentences are more easily understood and leave less room for lexical ambiguity. As before, less ambiguity and easier understandability lead to actionability, which is what moves branding from an afterthought to a brainworm that won't let go.

Use direct address and active voice

Direct address is what happens when someone is talking directly to you. Literally, it gives one the sense that the speaker is paying attention to them. The extreme form of this is feeling under a microscope, but when used properly, one gets the impression the speaker is genuinely interested in them. The "showing interest" initiative is translated into emotional attachment and well-being so we get a memory and sensory two-for-one.

Active voice occurs when sentences have a subject-verb-object structure. Compare "This sentence uses active voice" with "for example, this sentence is an example of passive voice." The latter breaks the sentence into two parts, and the mind has to perform more neural gymnastics to make sense of it than is required with simple active voice.

Direct address combined with active voice creates a sense of motion, action, sometimes urgency, and a need to act or respond to the message.

Active voice and direct address are best used in branding in the first sentence of your content especially when quickly followed up with a conversational mix of active and passive voice, direct and indirect address. The mind responds to the active voice, direct address, then incorporates it with the emotional tone of the conversational message. The brain interprets the combination as, "Oh, they just wanted to get my attention. OK, now I'll listen to what they have to say."

Putting it all together for marketers

Studies show that the previously cited techniques used together have some powerful branding side-effects.

Research shows that a branding message repeated throughout the day (not all at once, spread them out) and coming via different media channels causes faster branding than a single message repeatedly delivered via a single channel. After something is in long-term memory and there's a time delay between storing and relearning (rebranding), the individual will think "oh, yeah, I heard that somewhere else" or "oh, yeah, I knew that." In either case, the brain evaluates the message as true rather than questionable. Any time a brand message is automatically considered true is a plus.

Peer group spokespeople whose language mirrors the emotional biases of the audience invoke what is called destination memory. Consumers who are able to focus on the emotional tone of speakers could remember the source of those messages more easily (they were branded). Emotional appeals cause better branding as people will remember the source of emotional information. The key is to have them remember a "friend" sharing the information, not the brand itself.

Small words, short sentences with active voice, and direct address
Invoking a brand name often in communications (branding messages) using these elements has been shown to increase memory of the brand, positive imagery, and lead to brand-directed decision making.

Here's an automotive example that brings all of the above elements together into a branded online property called "My(brand)Story.com." The goal is to move consumers to thinking of brand versus brand model:

  • Mirror: Amateur, self-produced videos of owners that emphasize desired brand-associated concepts rather than  individual brand models are recruited.

  • Touch: These videos are either used or promoted on all media channels.

  • Touch, mirror, and memory: All viewers are invited to vote on the best videos. Owners are invited to vote and upload their story to My(brand)Story.com. Winning video producers and randomly selected voters win the same prize (important for neuroeconomic fair-exchange reasons).

  • Small words, short sentences, mirror, and memory: Voters are asked to vote in two concept categories only. What video gave you the most sense of concept A about the brand? What video showed you the most of concept B about the brand?

Joseph Carribis is founder and CRO for NextStage Evolution.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Abstract and colorful background template" and "hand drawn brain" images via Shutterstock.


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