The Pressure’s On and the Cracks are Beginning to Show

First published September 10, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Some time ago, I wrote a column saying the fallout of the economic crisis would be a rapid evolution in marketing practices, speeding the transition from the old way of doing things to a much more dominant role for digital. In that transition, search would play a bigger role than ever. In the past few months, I’m seeing exactly that come to pass. People are serious about search, from the bottom right up to the top corner office. This isn’t playtime in the sandbox anymore; we’re suddenly moving front and center.

“I’m Ready for My Close Up, Mr. CMO”

The reason people are so interested in search is that it comes with the reputation of being highly measurable and accountable. This isn’t anything new, but lately, it’s coming with some additional baggage. Now that the C-Level is involved, performance isn’t being judged simply on a trial campaign with a limited budget. Suddenly, search is being tested to see if it’s worthy of taking a starring role in the marketing mix. And that is adding a lot of pressure to those of us toiling down here in the search trenches.

Search, by its nature, isn’t all that scalable. It comes with a built-in inventory limitation. You can only reach people who have raised their hand, indicating interest in something. Once you tap out that inventory, search loses its bright shiny luster. Search is effective because it’s a signal for consumer intent. You can’t use search to create intent where none exists.

“You Bid on What?”

Management of search isn’t very scalable, either. It’s a lot of heavy lifting and obsessing over thousands of tiny little nitty-gritty details, which, if you overlook them, can suddenly blow your ROI right out of the water. Just ask the PPC manager who forgot to set the appropriate budget cap and comes in on a Monday morning to find they’ve just spent several thousand dollars of a client’s money on a broad match for the word “lube.”

Also, the new breed of client is expecting more than just a limited tactical approach to search. Suddenly they’re using words like “integrate” and “holistic” because, well, because those are just the kind of words you use when you get to the top of the corporate food chain. You get paid the big bucks because you can toss “synergistic” around in a board meeting and actually be serious at the time.

Back to the Drawing Board

Right now, people across this great land are pulling out their white boards and sketching out the rudiments of “Marketing Plan 2.0.” They know something important has shifted in the marketing landscape; the economic belly flop has made it all too apparent that there must be a better way of doing things.  I haven’t seen any huge waves of budget pouring into search yet, but I know there’s a lot of talk out there, and much of it is about search.

Generally, I think this is great news. I’m the first to complain about the tactical bias of search marketing.  I think search has a much greater role to play — but I feel it’s only fair to warn search marketers that this isn’t going to be a painless skip down the path to a lucrative retirement. Anytime there’s a big shift, it comes with an accompanying pendulum effect. After being restrained too far on one side of equilibrium, the pendulum has to correct by swinging too far in the other direction. As budgets start to come into digital channels, including search, we’ll learn that, in many cases, it comes with a set of expectations that are seriously out of whack.

Survival of the Fittest

There are some search marketers that are ready, willing and able to take search to the next level, the one it rightly deserves. There are many others who will use impressive words in the sales pitch (words like holistic, integrated and synergistic) but fall seriously short on delivery. The path ahead is going to have a lot of casualties, both on the vendor and client side. But then, evolution has never been a particularly gentle process.

Just ask any ichthyosaurus.

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