Disney Disses Search – But Misses the Mark

First published March 30, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Fresh from the floors of OMMA in Hollywood…

I was sitting in on the Monday morning keynote address from Albert Cheng, who is ABC’s newly minted executive vice president of digital media. Albert said all the things you would expect him to, including platitudes about embracing new technology, seeing the tremendous promise of digital, and vowing to provide viewers with high quality content, wherever they are, whenever they want to watch, and on whatever they want to watch it on. It went all pretty much according to the script, but halfway through, he made a comment that showed a brief glimpse of raw emotion. Ah… my ears perked up!

First of all, other than in Cheng’s introduction, he barely mentioned ABC. It was the Disney banner that Cheng unfurled and praised for its long-standing dedication to quality content. And he reminded us that this same quality content is not cheap to produce, then proceeded to take a swipe at the search engines. He took exception to the engines seeking to monetize that content through aggregation and disintermediation, echoing a sentiment common with almost all creators of content (see my earlier article, “Is Search a Leech on the Internet?”). But rather than just leave it there, Cheng went on to say that advertising presented by search engines can never hope to be as effective as advertising presented on video.

Whoa there, Albert!

I think you missed a point roughly the size of Walt Disney World. Search advertising doesn’t have to assault the senses or make us feel all warm and fuzzy to get our attention, because it already has that attention: we requested the messages through the act of search.

Cheng slipped back into safe boilerplate corporate speak about how the “halo effect” of advertising presented together with entertainment creates a much stronger response with consumers. He used the placement of Sears appliances and home furnishings in the popular show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” as the example.

There was a major disconnect here that was a little troubling, coming from a vice president of one of the largest media corporations in the world. Cheng was trying to draw a comparison between two wildly different advertising channels, and the attempt to contrast effectiveness was naïve at best.

Later That Same Day…

I was moderating a panel on video search. We speculated for 45 minutes on where video is going, and debated how advertising could be incorporated into digital video. At the end, I wrapped up by saying that search has been one of the very few unqualified successful online advertising channels. It remains to be seen how other marketing messages evolve themselves to engage consumer attention. Video remains squarely in this category. And the reason is simple: search gets one basic concept better than any other channel. Consumer control is hardwired into search. Search has become the embodiment of that control, the mechanism through which we request pretty much anything online. You can have all the quality content you want online, but unless a consumer requests it, typically through a search engine of some kind, you have no audience.

Maybe Albert Was Having A Bad Day…

I don’t blame ABC and Disney for feeling threatened. Every executive at a major traditional media corporation is feeling his empire crumbling beneath his feet. The world has shifted 180 degrees, and power has consolidated itself in the hands of consumers. Yes, Disney has invested billions in creating the machine that can churn out entertainment. But the distribution channels for that content have changed irrevocably. We, the consumers, have millions of options, we have control, and search will be the gate through which we allow that content to flow. That puts search in the driver’s seat.

Search has the tremendous advantage of an audience that’s highly interested in its advertising message. The consumer has requested information, and all the search ad has to do is promise to deliver on the consumer’s intent. In this case, simple text messages perform tremendously well. In fact, the introduction of any other type of advertising, including rich media or graphics, breaks the search paradigm and will likely be ignored. Remember search banner ads?

Now, mind you, getting a consumer’s attention with a search ad is harder than it sounds. Probably no one knows better than I how fleeting the search user’s attention is. But the advertisers’ odds for success are exponentially better than if they’re trying to attract the attention of consumers who are not thinking about a product and have no intention of doing so in the near future.

As long as consumer control is exercised through the act of searching, it will provide the single best opportunity to connect with a highly motivated consumer. There is still much work to be done in how that advertising is presented, as we explore the potential of search marketing, but with 40 percent-plus of online ad budgets swinging to search, I think the channel has pretty much proven itself.

Don’t Get Me Wrong…

I do agree with Mr. Cheng in one respect. I think there’s tremendous potential for online video as an ad delivery vehicle. I wrote as much in last week’s column. And I certainly agree that a halo effect is powerful in brand messaging. But to try to draw comparisons between this very distinct marketing approach and search is like trying to say that the airplane is a more effective means of transportation than the car. Two different applications, two very different beasts.

You should know that, Albert. After all, didn’t Disney once have its own search engine? Oh, that’s right. You couldn’t make a “Go” of it.

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