Branding, The Mind and Search

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately exploring the area of branding on the search page. This was one of the columns that started it all.  Check out the comments on the original. – G.

In my last column, I opened up the search “branding” can of worms regarding unclicked search ads and generated a fascinating discussion with Gian Fulgoni and James Lamberti from comScore, as well as Aaron Goldman from Resolution Media, who has unpublished research that sheds new light on the subject and counters my argument. I think it’s fair to say that the value of an unclicked search ad still needs further research to resolve the question.

If it proves that there is brand lift created, then the question of pricing models currently used comes back into play. As Lamberti mentioned, perhaps the problem is not the pricing model but the measurement methods. And, as Jonathon Mendez from Ramp Digital added, “Is Google leaving lots of money on the table? They’re the most insanely profitable company of our time — I think they know what they’re doing.”

How Much Value is There in Search?

Could it be that we’re all right? Could it be that there’s so much value in the search interaction that Google can be leaving money on the table and still be insanely profitable? I do believe that in the case of branding impact, there is a distinct difference in the nature of the impact of the search ad from almost any other form of advertising, which is the topic of this column.

As I said a few columns back, search is more than a channel. It’s a fundamental human activity, and the same things that may be working against search in an implicit engagement way are very much working for search in an explicit way. The nature of our engagement with search is much different from other advertising.

Daring to Define Engagement

The Advertising Research Foundation has been struggling with defining engagement as a cross-channel effectiveness metric for years now, without making much headway. The problem is that engagement with a TV ad is a totally different proposition than engagement with a search ad.

Let’s look first at TV. In the 1980’s, the ARF conducted a major research study called the Copy Research Validation Project (as referenced in “The Advertised Mind,” by Erik Du Plessis). The purpose of the study was to isolate the factors that were common in successful ads. What was the one factor most predictive of success, which was actually thrown in as an after-thought? Whether people liked the ad.

Before most ads can work, they have to get our attention. And we pay more attention to things we like. This led to a hyper-creative explosion in the advertising biz, as agencies churned out ads designed first and foremost to make us like them. Unfortunately, most ads forgot that once you get someone’s attention, you also have to sell something. And that can be a difficult balance to maintain. Our cues to switch selective perception to something that captures our attention and our natural defenses against unsolicited persuasion usually work counter to each other. And it’s in that dynamic abyss that 250 billion dollars of advertising — in the U.S alone — gets poured every year,.

Search: Likability is Not a Prerequisite

But search is different. You don’t need to like a search ad, because it doesn’t have to capture your attention. You’ve already volunteered that attention. Search is used to gather information about an upcoming purchase. You’re fully engaged. You’re focusing on it. There are no cognitive guards on duty, protecting you from unscrupulous persuasion.

There’s another difference. Other advertising interrupts you when you have no intention of considering purchasing the featured product or service. Search reaches you just at the time you’re most fully engaged in consideration. And there lies the tremendous value of search, as it opens the door to the most engaging interaction with a brand that there can be: the online visit.

The Most Effective Engagement Point

Once consumers have knocked on your door through search, you have a tremendous opportunity to engage them. They have expressed interest, they are actively and fully engaged, they’re looking for information and they are ready to be persuaded. In the universe of consumer motivation, all the planets are perfectly aligned. You simply cannot find a better touch point with a consumer than this.

But the key is, you have to let consumers drive that interaction. They may simply be looking for rational purchase validation information, they may be researching alternatives, or they may be looking to be emotionally persuaded. A Web site can do any and all of the above, but it has to be at the visitor’s imperative.

Do I think there’s tremendous brand value left on the table with search? Absolutely. And as James Lamberti from comScore said, uncovering that value lies first in better measurement. If we can prove the value, whether it’s implicit or explicit, that may indeed lead to a different pricing model. Let’s face it; we’re a long way from understanding online consumer behavior. As we gain more understanding, expect changes. Expect lots of them.

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