Search and the C-Level Ceiling

First published June 15, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

What is the No. 1 thing that keeps the sales teams at Yahoo, Google and MSN up at night? It’s not click fraud, it’s not capping of bid prices, and it’s not counting their stock options. This is another “C” word. I call it the C-Level Ceiling.

No Keys to the Executive Washroom for SEM

In corporate America, there’s a vast distance between the front line and the top management in most Fortune 500s. The C Level sees rolled-up dashboards, while front-line practitioners are up to their earlobes in masses of detail. Both bring their own kind of blindness. At the C Level, aggregation of metrics means senior management might not see the small emerging factors that could make a big difference if applied more broadly. And practitioners get swept away in minutiae, sometimes not getting the luxury of seeing their contributions as part of the bigger picture. Somewhere between these two extremes, search is caught in the land of the “trial” budget.

Search just hasn’t broken into the spotlight at the top of the corporate ladder. Senior execs don’t get search, they don’t want to get search and they certainly don’t want to move significant budget to search. As you move down the corporate ladder, the love affair with search gets more ardent. At the front-line practitioner level, it’s a full-blown romantic obsession, because the front line sees in gritty detail how well search can perform. But as you move away from the front line, the search story gets lost in a maze of numbers, being rolled up into one category after another, until it all but disappears at the highest level of reporting.

Search is a blip in the total marketing picture, a rounding error in most budget allocations. Despite the best efforts of the big search engines, the industry has been unsuccessful in getting the C Level to buy into search. So why is that?

I’m Too Sexy for This Channel

First, even if you don’t “get” something, you can still be interested in it. Everybody at the C level loves to get involved in the new corporate TV ads, because that’s sexy. If you’re launching a sponsorship of a NASCAR race, or the Olympics, or the World Cup, or a Rolling Stones Concert Tour, that’s sexy (with room for differing opinions on the sexiness of the Rolling Stones). If you’re doing product placement on “Survivor” or “American Idol,” that’s sexy. Search just isn’t sexy. Never was and never will be. The CEO or CMO is just not going to give up a weekend yacht trip to approve the latest search ads.

So, the first thing against search is there’s no sex appeal to draw in corporate execs, whether or not they “get” it (and most times, they don’t).

Use Me, But Please Respect Me

It’s estimated that there are about 630,000 C-Level executives in the U.S. If you asked them where the most effective place to reach them with an advertising message would be, they would tell you the Wall Street Journal print edition. And, according to a new study by Ipsos, there’s some validity in that. The Journal reaches 46 percent of the market. This is the place C Levels turn to get detailed information and opinion. They respect the Journal.

But an even more effective intersection would be search. The most dominant medium these executives use to stay in touch is the Internet. 55 percent use it at work, and 34 percent use it at home. Now, unless C Levels use the Internet in a totally different way than every other human, that means they’ll be using search a lot. So the very same executives that continue to allocate huge budgets to TV and print, and teeny tiny budgets to search, use search, a lot! Way more than they watch TV. Why is that?

The Generation Gap

A generation gap exists between the C Level and the front-line practitioners, and the executives at the top just haven’t accepted the fact that the world has changed right under their very feet. At the C level, despite tons of evidence that confirms the world is turning online, they’re still stuck very much in an offline world when it comes to budget allocation. And it’s not that they aren’t aware of the quantum shift in our society. It’s a comfort level issue. They know customers are wired, but they’re not exactly sure how online marketing works. The rules are still being written. At least with television or print, there’s the comfort of knowing they’ve been doing it for years. There are budget line items that are rubber- stamped each year, media buyers and agencies that are more than happy to take the money, and media outlets that are hanging on tenaciously to the budgets. For executives allowing the status quo to continue, the question they reassure themselves with is, “How could the world change so radically that the things we’ve done for the past 3 decades could be no longer valid?”

We saw an example of this recently. A travel company that targets young adults (18 – 30) continues to spend millions each year to produce huge, glossy brochures. At the practitioner level, this company has initiated research that shows that the vast majority of their target market does their research online. Yet the entire online budget is a tiny fraction of the print budget for the brochures that nobody reads anymore. Everyone who works on the front lines of this company knows they are seriously out of step with their market, but no one has been able to convince executives to cut the budget on print and swing it into online. The word hasn’t been able to get past the C-Level ceiling.

Search Delegated down the Ladder

With the meager budgets going to search, we can count on the responsibility for these campaigns being passed far down the line. Executives spend their time looking at the things that have the greatest impact financially on the company. If search is 2 percent of the entire advertising budget, but television accounts for 45 percent, the CMO is going to be spending a lot more time with television. That just stands to reason. So the future of search lies lost in the middle management layer, cut off from the budget allocations that can make a real difference.

Hammering the Message Home

So, what will shake up the status quo? Well, the shift has already begun. Calls for more accountability in advertising are great news for search. Someday in the not-too-distant future, the CMO, looking at the detailed report on the search campaign, will scratch his head and ask the fateful question, “Why can’t we get these kind of metrics for all our channels?” And there, in that one sentence, the battle will be won. It won’t be a quick win, but it will be tremendously satisfying.

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