SearchTHIS: From the Back of the Bus

Why would two guys agree to subject themselves to a round-the-country, multi-city presentation schedule with a moderator/master of ceremonies who isn’t exactly known for taking it easy on the experts? Search marketing education, of course.

Ron Belanger, Carat Interactive’s vice president of search, and Chris Henger, senior vice president of marketing and product development at Performics, joined yours truly and Derek Hewitt, iMediaLearning’s president, in this year’s iMediaLearning search marketing road show.

Our mission was to produce an online learning course and road show with agnostic search engine marketing content to help educate advertisers about the delicate intricacies of search. With the astronomical growth of search, advertisers are asking a lot of questions with few resources to attack the complex requirements of a search initiative. "Google approached iMediaLearning with the idea of a search marketing course and road show, and we answered with a solid collaborative effort across major search providers and key players in the industry," Hewitt says. 

Rockin’ Tour

OK, so, there really is no tour bus per say, but if you combine Chris’s six-string experience with Ron's -- who spent nearly a decade in an alternative rock band -- on the drums, and me on the bass -- yes, I was in an alt band, too -- we could actually produce quite the search marketing concert series Nirvana. For the moment, none of us have any plans to quit our day jobs, but for a group of guys who met face-to-face exactly one hour before the first show, we’ve achieved an onstage dynamic that might be compared with Cobain and company.

After touring Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston and Dallas, I thought it was time to catch up on our experiences on the road, what we have taught our audiences, and what we have learned from them. So without further adieu, here are the secret discussions in the "back of the bus."

And now, the banter:

Ryan: This topic is inherently boring. Let’s face it, on its best day, a search marketing show cannot compete with a rich media Eyeblaster extravaganza. Do you think we do a good job of keeping people awake during the show?

Belanger: We keep the content as interactive as possible, non-sales pitchy, and since Chris and I switch out speaking roles during the three-plus hours stage time, we have a dynamic experience for the audience.

Henger: While 2003 was the year of what is search, 2004 has become the year of how to approach search smartly. Since we have many live examples of using search tools and information, I think we keep the content moving very well.

Hewitt: The tough part is finding the middle ground between people who know quite a bit about SEM and those who do not. We are trying to create a class of managers, without providing too much redundant content so attendees will have a learning experience.

Ryan: So we are trying to educate without being didactic, but how have we achieved the main goals of show?

Belanger: Well, one of the key developmental aspects of both the course and the show is helping advertisers focus on the marketing aspects of search without abandoning the technical components.

Henger: We’ve had both agency and brand representation in each of the audiences, since we have a great deal of best practice and detailed case study information in the presentation, both audience groups take away information they can use

Hewitt: We are crossing the line from "pure search" into taking away an integration strategy for SEM while trying to address the practical question, is search cost of sales or cost of marketing.

Ryan: Cost of sales or cost of marketing would seem to be different for each client and industry. Everyone knows online merchant category killers are pretty sophisticated, but how are we graduating beyond them to help offline merchants measure and use search?

Henger: Both the course and the road show illustrate a two-step process. Getting away from online merchants, we are showing measurement techniques like building leads for offline sales.

Ryan: We mentioned deep content with case studies, how much fun (that was sarcasm) was to it to assemble them and get clearance to use the information?

Henger: We spent months collecting the information from large and small advertisers alike. Our goal was to share recent examples of the trials and tribulations in the space.

Belanger: First question, no comment. A lot of times in conferences we see sales pitches without useable content. In the show, we try to have a large cross reference of information and diversity in the clients we talk about to maximize audience takeaway.

Ryan: What is the hardest part about your job on the road?  Aside from, of course, waking up in the morning and trying to figure out which city you’re in?

Henger: The toughest part of educating is that search is a moving target. As an industry, integration is our biggest challenge.

Hewitt: Though the show could not have been possible without sponsorship (attendance is offered without cost), our sponsors have not had a lot of requests to fill the show’s content with their information. Though we use our sponsor’s information in various portions of both the presentation and online course, content is not limited to sponsors, and we keep extremely relevant.

Ryan: Bid management in paid search is a hot topic and we seem to have gotten a lot ofrequests for more information on the subject on the road. Everyone wants to know if they should use a third party and why.

Henger: A sizeable program requires thinking and human interaction along with the bid management interface. It [bid management] should be a start to the process. We see a lot of advertisers who try to navigate the space on their own initially with a small program, and when they expand to hundreds even thousands of keywords, a bid manager or agency becomes a reactive need.

Belanger: That’s the answer. An advertiser has to take into account the scope of their needs and make adjustments so it doesn’t have to be an urgent problem solving need, but a well thought-out solution early on in the process.

Ryan: Another buzz source from our audience has been SEM spam. Where does one cross the line between the search and spam?

Belanger: In the show, we talk about the miserable failure Google bomb. In our eyes if Google and Yahoo! identify it as spam, then its spam. While the whole process is still open to interpretation, search engines are setting the standards.

Henger: Search engines in general are taking a long-term view to relevancy in search, i.e. to provide a long-term revenue channel as opposed to a get rich scheme for search. That is the foundation of many avoiding spam practices: provide a rich user experience.

Ryan: I have found a healthy mix of youthful enthusiasm combined with a small amount of old-age skepticism. After traveling around the country and meeting search marketers everywhere, we are in the unique position of being able to offer a reading from the search marketing barometer.

Hewitt: Most people have a pioneering search marketing attitude. It’s quite refreshing when you compare that to some of the skepticism we have seen with other ad formats.

Henger: The underlying thread is, "How the heck do we do this and make money?"

Belanger: I am pretty impressed on the general knowledge attendees have of search. And middle-level players are asking some tough questions.

Ryan: Each city represents a new and different audience challenge. How would you describe the attendee blueprint of each show?

Hewitt: We have a big cross section of large brand advertisers, which points to an in-house search activity trend.

Belanger: I think a lot of people begin search in-house, realize how difficult it is, and then move it to an agency.

Henger: Every audience has been different. I think what sets our content apart is that we tailor each presentation to the audience we are about to see.

Ryan: Anytime you speak to a large audience there are bound to be some mishaps and the occasional boondoggle. What’s the funniest thing that happened with the roadshow? (Just as I asked this question, a woman walked up behind Ron and spilled her drink inches away, nearly drenching him in root beer.)

Henger: Most of all, hanging out with the sponsors and trying to keep track of the changes in the industry have been a lot of fun, but it had to be when we tried to do a live keyword suggestion demo in L.A., we ended up with a bunch of "adult" keyword results by accident.

Belanger: Since we all just met five minutes before the show began, I am surprised at how quickly we have been able to develop amazing group dynamic. Now if we can just get you to stop plugging your column.

Henger: I think we should address some of Ryan’s antics along the way, telling us to keep the sales pitches to a minimum…

Belanger: …while pimping his column in New York.

Henger: Or how about suggesting we all set fire to Newsweek in San Francisco, or quoting the movie 'Old School' during the presentation in New York?

Hewitt: I believe that was the week Google’s founders were on the cover of Newsweek, correct?

And that’s all the time we have

For the record, my suggestion for disposing of Newsweek napalm-style related to the ramifications of our news media painting paid search in a negative light, not burning Sergey and Larry in effigy. 'Old School' was a moving film on so many levels.

Of course, after listening to search marketing content, I believe our audience is entitled to a little non-traditional excitement as I moderate the question and answer session. That will be the subject of next week’s column, where I’ll address the top 10 questions asked on the road show to date. And remember, you can still catch the road show later this month in Chicago and Toronto.

Next week: Search marketers' top 10 questions

iMedia search columnist Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands: Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.

Meet Kevin Ryan at Ad:Tech May 24-26th, 2004 and the iMediaLearning Search Tour.