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SearchTHIS: Redefining Interaction

SearchTHIS: Redefining Interaction Kevin Ryan

It’s hard to imagine a busier week in advertising. Advertising Week events in New York are offering the best and brightest in the business a look inside the latest and greatest. In London, ad:tech is making its debut, and out in sunny Coronado Bay, California, the iMedia brand summit is in high gear.

Wherever you are this week, among the key topics of discussion are integration, integration and, in case you weren’t listening to the first two panel discussions and keynotes, integrating online, offline and specialized interactive initiatives that fall into the “other” category are top of mind for everyone.

Among the big news makers this week was the release of MSN’s new paid search interaction which, if it lives up to the hype will spell big changes in search marketing as we know it today. Coinciding with the MSN launch, the IAB released its latest round of ad spending data. Add this up and it’s an exciting time to be in search marketing.

Search is flat

Not that it should come as a surprise to anyone in the advertising industry, but the IAB/Pricewaterhouse Coopers report that was released at the IAB MIXX conference this week indicates that search’s overall share of online advertising revenue has remained flat for the first time in three years.

While total search revenues have increased alongside other advertising formats, 40 percent of spending was the best that search could muster. Overall spending increased 27 percent from the first half of 2004 to the first half of 2005 in the search category but the all encompassing rich media category kept pace at a 26 percent increase. The remaining ad formats saw marginal increases or maintained existing revenue share as well.

What does all this mean for marketers? Though search is still a growth category the heady days of search love for everyone are over. Get ready for stiff competition in advertising providers and third parties such as search engine marketing firms. The inevitable shake-out of search marketing firms is upon us. As growth percentages slow, there will be less advertising dollars to feed the search marketing masses.

Fluid search options

MSN’s AdCenter, which first saw action in Singapore, opened for business in France this week. MSN has promised that stateside marketers will have access to the next evolution of search marketing early this fall. This great big pile of targeted search fun has been hyped about since marketers got a sneak peak at the interface last March.

The new and improved approach to auction-based sponsored listings allows advertisers to target by gender and age, among other factors. The system uses a combination of third party profiling information along with registration data that provides a clearer picture into the mind of the searcher. AdCenter will also allow dayparting and geographic targeting options, but most smart marketers are already targeting in this manner via bid management tools.

Currently, the only options for reaching MSN searchers in the paid realm are buying sponsored listings via Yahoo! search syndication or stiff flat rate purchases from MSN directly. Perhaps these targeting options are only the beginning since it has been widely reported that Microsoft is considering a purchase/ merger with the likes of AOL and Claria. Behavioral targeting combined with the vast expanse of AOL subscriber data would seem to be good bedfellows for search.

Who cares about demographics anyway?

Well, I just searched for it didn’t I? I mean, the odds that I am a mom are pretty high if I just entered the term “Huggies” into the search box, right? What possible reason might you have for reaching into the great expanse of user profiles if I have already told you what I wanted?

There are plenty of really good reasons as a matter fact. For instance, it would be helpful to know that I am actually a new mom that lives in a very exclusive gated community. I can then change my messaging to address the specific needs of these moms, based on what I already know about them. I can also make the search experience much more pleasant for the Lexus driving soccer mom because I know exactly which type of diapers she needs.

Landing pages and messaging are just the beginning in the new targeting model. MSN search’s market share is still relatively small, according to August, 2005 data from Hitwise, MSN represents 15 percent of total search activity while Yahoo! and Google hold 18 percent and 40 percent respectively. However, with MSN’s 9 million plus subscribers, the targeting potential for search activity would seem to be endless.

Change is good?

Redefining search targeting beyond the query is also significant in that it represents a foundational change in the search listing dynamic. If an advertiser can pay a premium to reach its target audience, surfers that fall outside of a marketer’s existing profile will be excluded from seeing certain listings.

Data may suggest otherwise, but this may exclude some potential buyers unjustly. For example, just because the profile says I can’t afford a Rolex, that doesn’t mean I am not in the market to buy one. Also, search listings are perceived as an information resource and the shift to “highly targeted” listings may represent a more clearly defined and possibly unwanted form of advertising for consumers. Only testing will tell.

Most rules-based search engine marketing or bid management tools will have to change to suit the needs of targeting audiences with keywords and phrases. Firms that have invested millions in establishing communication vehicles that interact with paid search provider programs to help optimize paid search campaigns will have to transform how they do business. In short, all the rules are about to change. Are you ready?

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.

If your account value to an agency represents less than 30 percent of their current total billing, they are probably too large of any agency for you. My company, Applegate Media Group, for example, specializes in client media billing between $5 million and $10 million annually -- that is where we are best able to make a real difference for our clientele. Likewise, a client that has that level of budget should clearly understand the playground a given agency plays in based on its budgets.

If your annual media budget is $100,000, we may not be the best choice, ditto if it's a $100 million, and a good agency will recommend alternatives to clients that don't fit their budgetary sweet spot. Letting an agency play out of its league is an easy way to lose a client, and likewise, clients with relatively smaller budgets should work with an agency that specializes in that arena to ensure outstanding service. You don't want to be a small fish in a large pond. Be honest about budgets and work together to determine, right up front, if you are compatible.

Warning signs your agency might be too big for your budget:

  • The agency says, "I'm really busy right now," or, "as soon as I finish up with (insert client du jour here)."

  • Meetings are regularly cancelled and rescheduled or there is just a general feeling that you are not receiving the attention you want. You, as the client, should feel like a king (or queen) and be appreciated and counseled properly. All clients, regardless of budget, deserve to be valued and are important to the right agency.

Now that you know your budgets are in line with the budgets of your agency, the next important task is making sure you mesh with the personnel and their expertise.

Be sure to ask if the individuals in the review will be involved in the day-to-day operations of your account, and if not, who will be? Be sure to meet those who will be directly involved with handling your account, because again, no matter how large an agency is, your budget will dictate the account team -- that's who you want to meet because that is really who you're hiring.

For example, while I'm the president of AMG, we're a small agency, and I personally handle many of the daily tasks assigned to servicing a client, giving our clients the benefit of my, ahem, many years in the business and my expertise. Smaller agencies like ours tend to have the ability to be a bit more nimble, opportunistic and certainly hands on. If that is important to you, be sure the chosen agency fits within those guidelines. It is impractical for executive leadership to be involved in the day-to-day activities of every account -- and in some instances, you wouldn't want them to be -- so again, ask about personnel and ask about practical expertise of those assigned to your account.

Warning signs you have the wrong agency personnel:

  • You've never seen or met the owners or leadership of the agency or, worse, the only time you met them was during the review and sales process.

  • You are constantly having a new account executive assigned to your account.

  • Those assigned simply don't understand your organizational goals or your industry.

It may sound obvious, but don't select an agency because the account executive is your old drinking buddy from college. While personal relationships are indeed important, this is an important decision for an organization and should be based on sound principles of return-on-investment and achieving measurable objectives. If you do decide to go with your old drinking buddy from college, make sure he or she fits a few key criteria to make a good impression on both your target audience and your boss: Do they have the necessary tools? Do they have the staff and the expertise to achieve your core objectives? Do they have a measurable way to go about the process?

In the media strategy, planning and buying business, advertising and business marketing executives understand that no matter how great the creative of an advertisement is, if the right audience doesn't experience the ad, the tree has simply fallen silently in the woods. With ever increasing and complex media options competing for the hearts, minds and wallets of consumers, the need for media management expertise that efficiently and strategically connects businesses to their audiences throughout myriad choices has never been higher. Your friend can still be your friend, just make sure he or she can do the job. This is true regardless of the marketing discipline, be it creative, web development, branding or public relations.

Warning signs your pal isn't quite cutting the mustard:

  • They still ask you to go on Spring Break with them.

  • When you get together for cocktails you don't talk work.

  • You're afraid to hold this individual to the same standards you're being held to.

  • You are constantly the one being proactive and presenting fresh, new ideas.

Between all of our ears is this amazing organ called the brain; however, it seems to me that increasingly in the advertising, marketing and media industry, we're being ruled by emotion rather than logic -- or worse, we're not thinking things through to a logical conclusion. On the creative side, we are seeing increasingly, in my professional opinion, stranger, weirder and more outlandish advertisements trying to capture the attention of the viewer, listener and reader. Sad thing is, more and more (and I do this for a living so I'm paid to be hip), I don't even understand what is trying to be sold or how it helps me better my day or life or satisfies an impulse.

If your agency is touting how many awards it has won or showcases its marketing and graphics team as "creative," try to understand a bit more about what they mean by "creative." That term is a given in this business -- if you're not creative, you won't be in business very long. Marketing and media is designed to sell and increase market share, and somehow, somewhere that's being lost. Don't ask for catchy slogans and beautiful creative, ask how campaigns helped to increase market share by x percent, or to grow new leads by 50 percent from benchmark.

Good creative is important, but ultimately how that is used and properly placed within a strong marketing mix is going to make the difference between selling more and a "failed campaign." If you spent your budget on creating a blockbuster television campaign and you only have a few dollars left to place the ad on 2 a.m. horror movie classics -- well, you didn't use your head. The pieces and the programs work in harmony, so get the professionals involved upfront with your organization acting as the project manager, stating specifically: "Here's what we have, and here's what we want to achieve. What do we need to be put behind this, who are we reaching out to and what needs to be said?"

And, I cannot stress this enough, don't go into an agency meeting and say our budget is X. That's like taking a blank check to the government and saying, "Can you do something with this?" Budgets come about based on realities of the program, the targets, saturation, need frequency, reach, creative, other integrated strategies and so on. I guarantee that if you go to an agency and say we have $20 million to spend, they'll spend it, and will spend it based on budget as opposed to desired outcomes. Find a hands-on agency that understands how to work with a client to develop honest programs that are designed to achieve predictable outcomes based on level of push.

Also, if you just don't feel that the agency is using its brain and being smart about how it works with you, your target audiences, the way it proactively shares ideas and strategies and better alternatives (that may cost less), that's a good sign it may be time to move on. And, conversely, if you, the client, tend not to listen to what the senior advisors at the agency are counseling you toward and don't trust that this team is the expert, it's time to move on so you can let your strategic partners do their job, and make you look good.

Clients must be willing to do their upfront due diligence when selecting an agency, finding the right size, the right expertise and the right personnel for your program or project. I personally believe that RFPs are foolish and show a general lack of understanding of your own business. Find several agencies that fit these four simple rules and ask them -- four or five of them -- to come in for a formal presentation and make your selections from there. Trusted referrals are also a very good thing. If you don't use them, you'll simply find yourself unhappy and searching all over again. Be sure that your expectations are in line with reality, and again, a good agency will take the time to go through reasonable expectations based on budgets and your specific goals and objectives. 

In the end, we all want to impress. A good marketing executive needs their product, their service and their brand to make solid, lasting impressions, and changing agencies every 18 months is a surefire way to erode a brand. In sports analogies, think of it as changing your head coach or your quarterback every other season. It hurts continuity. Spend the upfront time asking the right questions. Being a good client and being a good agency is just like being in a good marriage -- you must have upfront communication and the desire to achieve a common goal together.

Clarify your value proposition
It is not uncommon for companies to fail to clearly communicate their major products or services from their homepages. This can be particularly true of business-to-business companies working in specialized vertical markets; it might seem easy to communicate with a specialized group of customers through offline channels, but then some sort of market shift occurs, and suddenly your website matters a lot.

Here's a story that is surprisingly representative. We worked with an airlines parts supplier that came to us because it needed to expand its global reach and shore up its domestic market base against competitors. The company's sales team complained that the website wasn't serving as good backup for their marketing and sales efforts, and they reported that customers said they couldn't find the company website using a search engine.

When our user experience architects evaluated the website, they found a homepage with little more than the company name and a "capabilities quick search." Primary navigation offered links to "Capabilities" and "Markets Served" along with the standard "News" and "About Us." With no dynamic content, nor even a tagline and positioning statement, there was no brand story to be drawn from the website homepage. No wonder the sales team couldn't refer their prospects to the site. And no wonder the site wasn't surfacing in search results -- there was no content for search engines to crawl.

Review your website homepage and ask whether it communicates quickly and clearly what your company does, and what your customers can get from you that they can't get from others. And ask whether it's communicated in language that your customers would use to describe you -- that's the language they'll use at a search engine.

Make sure your visitors know it's a homepage
There are two parts to this rule. One is about making sure your homepage telegraphs as such to your customers while they're on it. The second is about making sure they don't mistake another page on your site for your homepage. Both pieces are important.

First, make sure your homepage has all of the pieces and parts that tell a customer this is the primary navigational page on your site. According to the research-based usability guidelines used by the federal government, among others, the most important elements that users expect from a homepage are a masthead with tagline, distinct and weighted category links listed in order of priority, and all major content categories available and accessible. Chances are you have some marketing goals you'd like to layer on top of that, but don't forget to attend to baseline user needs.

The second part of this rule is to make sure that your homepage is distinct and different from all the other pages on your website. Do you think that both the web pages depicted below are homepages? Think again. The Cisco page is indeed a homepage (and, not incidentally, it also follows the value proposition guidelines discussed above).

But the Owens Corning page is actually an inside page for a building materials section of the company's website. Users might find this page via a referral from a newsletter, or simply by clicking on a navigational link. There is no clear indication from the navigation that provides cues about where the user sits in the site, and the page treatment reads as the front door to the site.

If research guidelines hold true (and they usually do), this page treatment will be problematic for the customers who use this site. Users like to know where "home" is. It gives a sense of structure and provides a spot for reorientation should they become frustrated trying to find something or complete a task.

Provide a clearly marked and functional search
When we bring customers into listening labs and observe their use of client websites, we're always reminded of the importance of search on a website. About half of customers look immediately for a search box when they are seeking something on a site. The other half use navigational categories and content links, so you have to support both.

Of course, government websites have to support both searchers and browsers, just like any other site. Even at a small size, you can scan the web page pictured below and see the search box highlighted in the upper right-hand corner. This placement provides solid support for those users who will inevitably scan for a search box before they move beyond the homepage.

Don't make it hard for these users (very likely half of your customers) to access the content on your site. Place your search box in an expected spot and mark it clearly and conventionally. Of course, your customers will also expect that your site search will return accurate, structured results from your entire website.

Format your content appropriately for the web
Customers don't read websites, they scan websites. As web usability guru Jakob Nielsen notes on Useit.com: "F for fast. That's how users read your precious content."

Users glance around a homepage to orient themselves, to ask whether they're in the right place, and to decide what it is they want to do next. And usually -- especially if they have the intention of doing business with you -- they have a goal in mind. Make sure your content is formatted to help them achieve their goals on your site.

The Loyola Medicine website depicted below does a nice job of balancing brand messaging with dynamic content. Elements of the page that are clickable are clearly marked as such, and the linked press release headlines at the right of the page will very likely get noticed by visitors because they are so clearly treated as content links. Content is short and to the point, and it's labeled by subject area. This is a site that respects its customers' time and needs.

Support your highest priority user paths
Primary navigational menus can provide an overall structure for your site, but there are very likely additional important paths to information that need to be highlighted for your customers. They want to connect with your products and services. Ask yourself whether the tools and information that appear on your homepage are helping them to do that. If you know that 70 percent of your visitors arrive at the site looking for product manuals, provide a clearly marked path to product manuals. If you're posting news and events links that no one is clicking on, consider eliminating them and finding a more effective channel to distribute that type of information.

The IBM.com homepage illustrates an effective elimination of clutter. It does a big job simply and effectively. Information is clearly structured under a strong primary navigation menu (note that search box at upper right). Brand messaging is edited and impactful. A secondary navigation treatment organizes information by task type, including learn, shop, develop & deploy, and get support. Each tab houses links aimed at different customer types (CIOs, business partners, developers, etc.). Combine all of that with an effective sprinkling of content in down-to-earth language designed to act as a magnet for search engine referrals, and you've got an effective homepage.

Ask your customers for feedback
I said it before, and I'll say it again: You've got to listen to your customers. They've got the insights you're looking for.

If you're redesigning your homepage (and overall web presence), it's essential to listen on an ongoing basis. Listen up front in order to plan your changes, and then listen while you show your customers your idea of what you think will work for them.

At White Horse, we often head into listening labs to watch users interact with a redesign prior to handing it over to engineering. User acceptance testing on a limited interactivity prototype is an effective method for spotting usability problems that can be solved before money is invested in technical development. We facilitate a website use sessions to gather structured customer feedback as they use the prototype to locate information and perform high priority tasks.

Revisions and adjustments can be easily made in response to this feedback. In addition, our clients often emerge from their observation sessions in these labs with a new round of ideas from customer comments that feed their next cycle of development.

The success of your homepage begins and ends with your customers' ability to use it for decision making about everything from whether they want to do business with your company to whether they can find the information they're visiting to find.

I hope you'll share your own tales from the trenches of customer feedback in the comments section below. Have you tested your homepage with your customers? Did you have any "a ha!" moments as a result of the tests? What do you think is the single most important thing you could do to improve your homepage? I look forward to reading your comments!

Robin Stevens is director of user experience and senior UX strategist at White Horse.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

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Kevin Ryan founded the strategic consulting firm Motivity Marketing in April 2007. Ryan is known throughout the world as an interactive marketing thought leader, particularly in the search marketing arena. Today's Motivity is a group of...

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