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SearchTHIS: Where Do We Go from Here?

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS: Where Do We Go from Here? Kevin M. Ryan

At next week’s iMedia Agency Summit in lovely Amelia Island, Florida, hundreds of key industry decision makers will descend upon the sunshine state’s jewel. We will ponder, obsess over, and even action the online marketing universe. At the end of an exhausting three days (as is often the case with iMedia events) we will be fatigued, enlightened, and dare I say, better marketers.

Among the panel discussion topics is the future of search. While it is customary to review said discussions in the post summit wrap-ups, the anarchist in me thought it would be a great idea to give iMedia readers an opportunity to sound off and be heard on the discussion points of next week’s search focused working group forum.

I have assembled an A-List group of industry moguls, gurus and thinkers to help guide our discussion.  They are (in order of appearance):  Bob Visse, Director of Marketing, MSN Search; Ron Belanger, Vice President, Search Engine Marketing, Carat Interactive; Bob Heyman, Chief Search Officer, Media Smith and Greg Sterling, Senior Analyst, The Kelsey Group. I asked each member of the panel to suggest ideas for the discussion and ultimate resolution of five key areas of search.

Without further delay, I bring you the consensus for your review and comment. 

The very notion: measurement

The future of the small portion of online advertising (that was sarcasm: search represents forty percent of spending) that we call search has been the subject of much conjecture this year. A large part of the foundational growth of search can be attributed to the immediate accountability search provides. That is to say, a click often leads to a purchase, but what about other metrics?

Brand is a buzzword, but getting marketers to buy into brand advertising metrics for search is another matter. In search, branding is often an excuse for failed direct campaigns: i.e., nobody bought anything, but there was plenty of branding to be had in that campaign.

There have been studies that point to branding as a key element of search. Most notable was the IAB’s research of last July. Has the needle moved since then? Are marketers happy with brand impact as metric for search, or is branding still an excuse for failure?

Alternative search

The business of search is often a directive concern. Keywords are optimized for big search sites, and the market leading search destinations, like Google, Yahoo!, and MSN, represent the bulk of traffic for most search marketers.

What about the other entry points of search? Vertical directories like Business.com and provider Industry Brains offer sound advertising options for search marketers. Shopping engines are all the rage, but will this category grow out of the affiliate marketing mess they have created? How about second tier directive search options like FindWhat and LookSmart? How will social networks impact search?

Today, the search buy is limited and one could argue that a few providers control pricing. One could also argue that it is still early in the game and anyone can win the battle for search mindshare. Do we have room for more players, and what will the winners look like?

True relevance

I was actually thinking of doing a Quentin Tarantino "True Romance" spoof here. Relevance is a battle ground in search today. Special interest groups are hard at work brainwashing consumers into thinking sponsored listings are evil. Meanwhile, back at the marketing budget, targeting searchers is the hot topic of the day.

Marketers want a more contextually relevant value positioning statement for search. The cold harsh reality of search is that we know very little about how users interact with the search page, short of direct observation. Yahoo recently released a study that indicated search had a direct relationship with display advertising on the web. Is this research a sign of things to come?

Wouldn’t it be great if we truly understood how search interacts, not only with the online experience, but with offline initiatives and with purchase behavior as well? Search programs would no longer be restricted to keywords and immediate desired action requirements. How long will it take to truly integrate search into a next generation targeting plan?

Getting personal

Will the evolution of desktop, archiving technologies and personalization all change how we view search forever? Just imagine what marketing models will look like when search results include everything from  geographically relevant results to friends suggested links and things you might wish to buy. Directive search results as we know them today will be a thing of the past. I’ll use search as a utility to keep track of everything on my computer, my gadgets, my favorite television shows and perhaps even my relationships.

Despite the advances in making search a more personal experience, privacy concerns abound. Google’s AutoLink feature could have been received better, and the “are they or aren’t they” reading my email to serve me ads question has sparked a question or two in the space.

Is the privacy issue hyped-up paranoia or justified concern? Where will concerns over anonymity converge with a better, more efficient search experience?

Life after text

Search today is boring. Search is the most creatively benign form of marketing ever conceived. In an effort to spice up the search experience, will we lose the very thing that made search popular?

It seems that every week a new and exciting development in the world of search takes place. Google recently launched a new and better way to for advertisers to reach contextually relevant buyers with graphic ads. Video and audio searching are the immediate next technology steps for a new and better search, while still better technologies are farther off in the horizon.

How much is too much? Can everything be piled on to a search result like a New York deli mile-high pastrami sandwich? When will consumers say enough is enough and want their good old simple search experience back?

Sound off

There are lots of issues that will shape the growth and ultimate expansion of search as a marketing discipline, and a few other top runners-up in the discussion format are worth mentioning. Fraudulent click traffic, for example, is still top of mind for advertisers, but we have yet to see any real estimates of just how much traffic is less than on the level. Another close runner-up was the local conundrum. The biggest problem with local directories can be summed up this way: technology is great, but what about accurate data?

Here’s you chance to sound off. Which factor do you think have the biggest impact on the future of search? How will new technologies change the way we think about connecting with audiences with keywords? Let me know via email.

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 the principal of Kinetic Results, Inc. a New York based online presence management firm.

Meet Kevin Ryan at the iMedia Summit, May 22- 25.

Monitor buzz, but with a new goal in mind
Before you start overtly marketing to your fans and followers through promotions and special offers, find out what type of offers they want to receive. The beauty of social media is that it's a two-way street. In the old days, marketers researched basic demographic and sales data and then blasted out offers, hoping people would take notice and buy products. On the other hand, with social media's inherent ability to directly connect brands with consumers, marketers can now find out with certainty exactly what type of promotions their customers want.

Use your buzz monitoring tools to find out what people are saying about your brand, why they are saying it, and who they are saying it to. But instead of just getting a vague reading on brand buzz, instead use the tools to track the actual pass-along of your brand's social content via tweets, blog posts, Facebook postings etc., to see which content is driving the most sharing on which sites. For example, you may find that mothers have been sharing information about your chemical-free sunscreen products via posts on popular mommy blogs. You can use social media analytics tool (see list below) to track this level of detail. Then you can seed offers of 20 percent off the sunscreen on the mommy blogs where the discussions are taking place, or create a Twitter promotion such as "Moms: Get 20 percent off the only truly chemical-free sunscreen this week only."

Tracking this level of word-of-mouth is crucial to formulating the right marketing messages and promotions, because you must deliver relevant social deals that resonate with people's immediate interests.

Test out some promotions
Once you figure out what people want via social media tracking, give it to them. Try out a few promotions based on the intelligence you gathered from the first step above. And make sure to then track the performance of these promotions using your social media analytics tools again. For example, you might try a promotion for 15 percent off your whole order today. Once it's over, track how many people clicked on the promotion and completed a sale (classic click-through and conversion metrics), but also continue to measure buzz, monitor conversations, and measure pass-along of the promotion using your social media analytics tools.

You might find that everyone loved your 15 percent off promotion -- it was shared with hundreds of thousands of people via social sites and email -- but that many people complained that shipping costs were too high. Problem solved: In your next promotion, offer free shipping. Or, you might find out that one of your new products is getting incredible buzz, but that people are making comments such as "Can't wait to buy this product, but I'm waiting to see if the price drops."

With this type of information, you can then seed a targeted, one-day-only offer of 20 percent off that's exclusive to Twitter followers and Facebook fans. Remember to be creative and have fun with your offers; unlike paid search ads and other media buys, you don't have to spend months planning and budgeting for social media promotions. Just do it!

Measure, test, and re-test
Once you've offered a few social media promotions, do a deep dive into analytics and measurement to gauge the bottom-line impact of the promotions on your overall business. You'll want to find out if your social media promotions are having a bigger impact on sales and profits than some of your other marketing programs, and whether the social channel is working to drive sales for specific product lines, but not as well with others.

Some of the basic things you should measure include how many times your promotion was shared, by which groups, and on which sites; how many times the promotion was redeemed; what increase the promotion caused in traffic to your website; what direct impact the promotion had on conversion; and what impact the promotion had on overall ROI. You should also run A/B tests on different promotions that ran during a similar time frame to see which worked better and why.

For example, did a promotion for 50 percent off drive more sharing, visits, and conversions than a two-for-one offer? Did one promotion work great on Facebook but fall flat on Twitter? In addition to simple A/B tests, compare results for social media promotions against the data from your regular marketing analytics platform to see whether your social media promotions are performing better or worse than traditional paid media marketing campaigns.

While social promotions almost always perform better than paid media ads in terms of conversion -- due to the direct, immediate, one-to-one marketing nature of social connections -- paid ads may drive a higher volume of traffic to your site, for example. With a proliferation of social media analytics tools, the social channel has become as measurable as paid advertising, so make sure you're measuring it that way. Find out the true ROI of every social media promotion, because if a direct marketing campaign like a promotion is not working to drive bottom-line profits, it's not working at all.

Already, some brands are having great success using the social channel to sell, sell, sell. For example, Dell Computers recently released the results of its social media program on clicks, site visits, and sales, and an impressive tens of millions of dollars in directly attributable sales on their site came directly from their social media initiatives.

Lastly, to achieve this level of sales success with social media marketing, you'll need the right analytics tools. Here is a list of the best social media analytics platforms available today.

  • Bit.ly -- This leading URL shortening service not only compresses long URLs that lead to your site, but it also provides valuable click-through reporting for registered account users, as well as integrates tightly with Twitter. [Note: We find it particularly useful in our client programs to use site analytics-tagged URLs, compressed via Bit.ly links. The result is smaller and more user-friendly links when you syndicate invitations to visit your website via today's leading social media platforms and sites.]

  • Meteor Solutions -- Meteor offers website managers the ability to integrate a small amount of Java script into their sites, then garner valuable information over time about where their site visitors are sharing what they find there via email, blogs, forums, Twitter, Facebook, and anywhere else on the social media web where people share links with others to their favorite sites, products, and services. For e-commerce and lead-gen powered websites that rely on sharing for at least some of their inbound traffic, Meteor complements what your site analytics solution is already showing you by providing deep insight into when that sharing is leading to a "closed loop" of downstream clicks and site visits.

  • Google Analytics, WebTrends, Omniture, and other site analytics solutions -- It goes without saying that data-driven marketers and site managers today rely on their website analytics solution to tell them which paid and social media efforts are generating the most impact in terms of referral traffic and site visits, as well as conversions or sales.

  • Klout, Twinfluence, and Twitter.Grader -- Third-party technology tools like Klout, Twinfluence, and Twitter.Grader are emerging at a blistering pace. They provide free or very low-cost methods of estimating how powerful your branded, managed social media community sites and services are performing over time as you syndicate messages, deals, and content to your target audiences online. Savvy marketers are moving their customer engagement initiatives toward an "Awareness? Visits/Clicks ? Conversion" model with these tools. By using these tools, marketers can go beyond amassing friends/fans/followers to gain more nuanced evaluations of how much real awareness and engagement they are driving with their social media marketing programs. Using one or two of these emerging tools to evaluate the real impact of your social media marketing initiatives can provide valuable, complementary insight and data over your traditional analytics platform -- getting you ever-closer to an apples-to-apples comparison of how social media investments stack up vs. traditional online marketing investments such as display, search, and affiliate.

Social media marketing has moved on from the buzz-building world of yesteryear (last year, which is an eternity in the social media world!) to become a solid sales channel. Get social media promotions right, and your brand will reap the rewards: cold, hard sales.

Clay McDaniel is principal and cofounder of social-media marketing agency Spring Creek Group.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia at @iMediaTweet.

Q: You're often quoted as saying that brands need to invest more in R&D. Do you think that certain areas of research and development are more important than others?

You're partially right. It's not just that we need more R&D; we also need better R&D. It amazes me how incredibly poor the quality of so much of our research really is. We have methods that have dominated our industry for many years, for which we have historical benchmarks, but that have clearly demonstrated their inefficacy in the market. And there are reasons why these methods are so poor. Conceptually, they clearly fall short of their tasks. But we're used to them, so we rely on them. For example, human emotion is at the core of most media and marketing research. It's clearly one of the main drivers around the audience/consumer experience. And how do we measure emotion? We ask people to tell us about their emotional journeys, either in surveys or focus groups. Really? Does that make any sense? People don't know what their emotional experiences are. So how can they tell you about it? And even if they could, the act of telling us draws on their rational faculties, so in the course of describing it, they would be giving us a completely distorted picture. It's not surprising that the research ends up being so poorly predictive. It's a poor fit to the task, but it's what we know so we continue doing it even though deep down we know it falls short.

So at MediaScience, we rely on more direct measures of emotion: biometrics, facial coding, eye gaze, and reaction times. We're always on the hunt for new methods. We're thrilled at the conceptual breakthroughs we've seen. And these are early days. There's so much to look forward to. And I say this as just one example -- tackling emotion. There are so many other exciting new frontiers.

So yes, there's a need to invest in new R&D, but unless that investment actually advances the game, it's of no use. In fact, I believe that more investment in bad research only increases your liability.

Now I'm not arguing for any one method. There are so many exciting new frontiers opening up. But whatever your focus, lift your game. Don't settle for research that is a poor fit to the problem. Demand better. And invest because never before has innovation afforded a greater opportunity to break ahead.

Q: Gathering data is critical work, and correctly interpreting data is just as important. Are there any universal tips you can share on where to start after the data have been collected?

The question is deceptive because there's not a lot you can do in the analysis stage if the design wasn't right. When I look at data generated from the wrong design, my usual instinct is to collect the data again using the right design because analysis is only as good as the data going in. There are a number of problems, I think, that are endemic to our industry at the design stage. The first is the "off-the-shelf" design, where vendors fit your problem to a product they already have on offer. Now sometimes that works well because the product was developed for your very specific problem. But in all too many cases, it's a forced fit. Yes, easier for everyone to work with, but so much more limiting once you get to the analysis stage -- with so much less potential contribution. Another problem is the lack of control over study variables. For example, many researchers don't properly rotate their test content. So in the analysis stage, you don't really know if you have an order effect or a genuine effect. The list goes on and on. I'm often surprised at how little time and effort goes into the design stage given how important it is to every insight that grows out of it.

The other thing I would say is that researchers need to be very conservative with findings. There is far too much tendency to hype findings and be aggressive in trying to show effects even when it is not clear those effects will really stand up. There's no question that good news pleases clients -- who often press for findings to justify spend. But at the end of the day, your lasting reputation depends on market performance, and you're much more likely to get it right when you are conservative by nature. We've had a number of studies for ESPN, for example, that were then tracked by them as they deployed in the market. And fortunately for us, their subsequent tracking research has, so far, always confirmed our findings (touch wood). We've built that reputation in-house by being conservative rather than aggressive with our findings. I'm not saying we'll always get it right, but we're far more likely to get it right when we are conservative rather than aggressive with reporting our findings.

Q: How do you approach developing research methods for new advertising models?

Researching new ad models is actually much harder than it looks. I think the biggest challenge is in figuring out how to produce the new ad model in the first place. By nature, if you're talking about a new ad model, you're probably talking about something that either doesn't exist in the market or that is very limited in its implementation. So how do you capture the experience and manipulate it (testing effects on different brands, for example) in the lab? What I discovered 10 years ago was that the only way you could do this was to have your own software engineers and programmers. You can't depend on the client because if you wait to for a mature-enough product, you'll be testing old models instead of new ones. So that's the first challenge. We usually need to build our own systems to make the new ad models work for our purposes.

The second challenge is getting your head around how the new model really works at a conceptual level. The traditional 30-second commercial was a one-size-fits-all ad model. But now we have a near infinite range of models, each of which works in a completely different way. This is great news for brands because it means they can deploy models better suited to their strategic objectives. But before they can do that, we need to understand exactly what each new model brings to the party and how it can work for a brand. Does an interactive ad work because it sifts the audience, finding those already receptive to a brand? Or does it have some type of persuasive effect on those who encounter it, providing product rehearsal, capitalizing on the dynamics of choice, and engaging cognitive systems more actively? I mean, the possibilities are near infinite. The challenge for us is that many of the new models are developed by engineers and programmers who tinker on gut instinct, so they are often unable to articulate any sense of the conceptual framework through which the new model might work. This often means we have to dive in -- reviewing literature, modeling out the effects, and designing experiments to tease out different competing hypotheses. It's one of the reasons why lab-based research is so critical.

Finally, once you have hypotheses around the variables you think are at work, you need a game plan as to how you'll test your theories. In many cases, this means we have to invent entirely new methods. What's great about the labs at MediaScience is that we have no shortage of tools. We have a commitment to bringing in every tool we can and every new method we discover. That way, it's all about matching the right tool to the right problem. And that often requires a lot of validation work on our part with the new methods, to make sure they are really measuring what we think they are measuring. And, of course, we often have to build new algorithms because in most cases the measures we need don't yet exist.

I can't begin to express just how gratifying this all is to us as researchers. At our core, those of us in research are motivated by the passion for discovery. Taking a new proposition and figuring out what makes it tick, why it does what it does, and what the relative strategic contributions are -- those are the aha moments that make the journey so fulfilling.

As I said earlier, as researchers, this is our golden age. I can't imagine a more exciting time for researchers to demonstrate their value to their organizations. And I have no doubt that media and marketing companies alike will increasingly come to recognize their need to invest in R&D to remain competitive going into the future.

Jennifer Marlo is the content manager at iMedia.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


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