SearchTHIS: There's Search in Them There Hills

Perceived search equity is up, profits are up and budgets are up, so what's to worry about in search?

How about the state of search marketing in the grand scheme of online media? Where does it fit? What do the biggest brands in the world think about search?

There is only one place one can find the answers to these questions, an iMedia Brand Summit Well, maybe two, but wandering the comped seat section of the Emmy Awards is generally frowned upon. So last week, brand giants ascended a thin-aired mountain near Park City, Utah for top-tier discussions in online marketing.

One had to look to find search engine marketing at 8,200 feet above sea level. But then again, the largely top-line, high-end content isn't structured to be a low-level discussion of ad unit descriptions. An iMedia Brand Summit is a place for big marketers and brands to come together in high-level dialogue and key decision-making information. Yet, search engines did make their way into the conversation.

Let's take a look at the what and how from a place with plenty of air and not much oxygen.

Is search even advertising?

Tuesday morning, Carat North America's chief executive tossed out a thought which had me flashing back to my own humble beginnings. David Verklin, in a discussion about the roles of each warring faction (creative, account service, media) within an agency described his experience coming up the ranks in media.

"Media always went last," Verklin said. "We'd talk about all of the exciting plans we had for the client -- then it was my turn to speak."

Maybe I was still a little light-headed from the altitude change, but at that moment, I had an out of body experience and went back to my first job in advertising.

The dawn of my own career contained an internship for a large advertising agency with in an ungodly big name in the industry. At the time, I was untouched by the earthly cynicism that can only be built by years of agency cruelty. In my case, it took about 12 minutes to smarten up and get the hell out of there. In the first day on the job I bore witness to a senior executive finally breaking down with a cardiac episode after a long career in the biz. As he was being carted out to the ambulance, the other execs in the office took bids on his office space and I packed up my pencils and left.
 
Shortly thereafter, I began to work at an agency that specialized in yellow pages advertising for national brands. Though the corporate culture was markedly better, the rest of the ad world didn't even consider the phone book "advertising." Any time a presentation was scheduled, the yellow pages people always went last and the only client-side personnel left in the room were the same people who decided which logo was to be placed on napkin dispensers in the men's room.

As luck would have it, the world went digital shortly thereafter and I jumped on it. Yet again, the disappointing trend followed. Even though interactive later became "hip" and definitely "on it," interactive portions of strategic meetings were always at the end of the day. I remember one presentation to the only remaining staffer, the firm's chief financial officer who referred to online advertising as the "crap at the top of his search page."

Upon hearing that pearl of wisdom, I thought going into search might be a good way to go "beyond the crap." But as fate would have it, years would pass before search would even be considered online marketing. At the peak of online advertising hype in the late '90s, the pay-for-placement model (GoTo.com, circa 1997) was a joke in the ad industry, and any meeting about search was held much to the chagrin of Web masters or information technology people who seemed desperate to get back their "Dungeons and Dragons" game.

As Verklin pointed out later in the discussion, the role of media in the agency has improved a bit over time. Likewise, search has become mainstream, as it is now being credited with bringing the online ad industry out of its slump. Though I came back to the Summit room at the sound of closing applause, I found myself comparing the plight of search and yellow pages to media as the last entries in strategic meetings. I discovered two things: 1) no one had mentioned search yet, and 2), Verklin got off light in the media department.

Paint it brown

The Millward Brown study presentation was another place I started to see search creeping into the week. The presentation included glorious eye-opening thoughts on the impact of online advertising in the media mix, and big brands (292 of them surveyed from the iMedia database) viewpoints on how spending would go in the coming year.

Oddly enough, search marketing was broken out in those "How will your online budget be spent next year?" question categories. Halleluiah, at long last our time has come!

According to the research, sponsored by Advertising.Com and iMedia, all channels of online marketing -- Web advertising, search, email, promotions -- are expected to increase at a higher rate than other major media. Marketers were asked, "How does your 2004 online marketing budget compare to 2003 for the following online applications?" and "How do you think your 2005 online marketing budget will compare to your 2004 online marketing budget?"

The answers? Search media use was expected to increase 46 percent in 2005, down only 1 percent from 2004. Search was actually third in projected and actual media spending in 2004 and 2005 behind "Web advertising" and "email marketing." Trailing the list was "online promotions" at a mere 42 percent growth in 2005.

Marketers also were asked, "You mentioned that [a percentage] of your 2004 budget is allocated to other online marketing applications. Please specify what those other online marketing activities are." The question sought to name which channels of online marketing would grow significantly over the next five years. Of course, "Web advertising" topped the list at 28.2 percent. "Email" (19.2 percent) followed, while "search" (16.3 percent) came in third once again. "Online promotions" (13.9 percent) and "affiliate" (9.8 percent), closed out the list along with the x factor of "unknown" or "don't know" (12.6 percent) responses.

Another question shed some light on how advertisers view online marketing formats. Survey participants were asked, "For each of the media you use, please indicate the business/marketing objectives you are trying to address." Sixty percent of respondents named "search" as a means to acquire new customers along with "Web advertising" and "email" at 62 percent each. Search was not in the top responses for the other key objectives "retaining customers and increasing loyalty" and "encouraging trial."
 
Marketers only please

Yesterday morning, The Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and Pricewaterhouse Coopers Internet Advertising revenue report was released. Search spending showed a colossal increase from Q2 2003 ($481 million) to Q2 2004 ($947 million). Also significant in the report is the percentage of budget allocation to search -- 40 percent, up 11 percent from last year.

Actual search growth and spending is still on top of the list, but big brand marketers' predictions place search behind overall growth in the "Web advertising" category. So where's the beef?

Maybe the answer lies in a presentation I delivered in rare and enlightening opportunity I had before the Summit officially began. The exclusive meeting was held for a small group of big brands attending the Summit in a brilliant format so they could openly share ideas. I was ushered in to give an advanced search marketing presentation and back out when I was done. To be perfectly candid, I had no idea what to expect, and while most of what was discussed is forever protected under the cone of silence, I can share the primary takeaway I had from the meeting.

Marketers are a lot more informed than we often give them credit for in search marketing. Search may still be last in the scheduling docket for strategic meetings but my presentation was often interrupted by intelligent and provocative questions about specific applications of search. They know not only what search is, but how the ad vehicles in search are to be used for some of their goals. The problems more than few marketers identified in post meeting discussions with me related to conflicting information they received from agencies, search shops and search sites.

Search may not continue its explosive growth over the next few years, yet it's clear the sources of counsel for big brands need to start moving in sync with brand needs if we as search marketers are ever to achieve a higher ranking or more integrated role in the meeting schedule or hearts and minds of what big brands seek to accomplish on the Web.

iMedia 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 Ryan at the Kelsey's ILM:4 Conference, Nov. 3-5 and Ad:Tech  Nov. 8-10.

 

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