What I Took Away from the Search Insider Summit

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

I’ve had a few days now to reflect on what came out of the Search Insider Summit in Park City. It was an interesting perspective: Avinash Kaushik telling us that the majority of search marketing “sucks”; Mark Mahaney prophesizing that search is poised for a big climb in 2010; Rob Griffin warning us the entire industry is going through the throes of change; Chris Copeland showing us that social media is inextricably linked with search activity; and Mike Moran cautioning us that CEOs and CFOs worship at one altar and one altar only: profit. If we want to sell search, we have to speak that language.

Adding to this, I climbed on my usual soapbox, arguing that we spend too much time with data and too little time with our customers. In the panel exploring how to balance qualitative and quantitative approaches, the panelists were asked how they differentiated the two. For me, the answer is this: Quantitative is watching the dashboard while you drive. Qualitative is looking out the windshield.

SEM’s Call to Arms

So, when you mash this up over 3 days and distill the essence, what do you end up with? I think SEMs heard a distinct call to “up their game” last week in Park City. Sure, there are tough problems to tackle. Marketers are demanding more from their budgets than ever before. As Avinash said, attribution causes many marketers to “cry like little girls.” Determining user intent and matching it in our ads is tough. Matching it on the landing page and beyond is even tougher. Trying to wrap our heads around the shifting tide of social media gives us all a migraine. And if our jobs weren’t tough enough, Google just gave SEO a slap upside the head last week with personalization of all search results. Thank God the bar was open after the sessions wrapped up.

But we search marketers are a resilient bunch. The people roaming the hallways of the Chateaux at Silver Lake didn’t look morose. In fact, they were almost giddily optimistic. There was a sense that as rough as the ride was in this boat we all chose to set sail in, at least it was heading in the right direction. Rob Griffin put it this way: “If you’re any good, you might not have the same job title or be doing the same thing in a few years, but you’ll be employed. That’s more than a lot of other people will be able to say.”

I’m Not Sure Where We’re Going, but Follow Me!

I look at it this way. The market has already shifted. And where the market goes, we marketers have to follow. Somebody has to figure this stuff out. And, as I remarked to someone over drinks after the sessions wound down, I’m constantly amazed by the number of people in marketing who have impressive titles on their business cards but simply don’t get the magnitude of the behavioral shift we’re in the middle of. Avinash is right. A lot of what I see in the digital marketing landscape “sucks.” We have to get better. We have to get smarter. We have to do a better job of listening to the people we’re trying to market to.

I know we will get better. Really, do we have a choice? And the advantage search marketers have is that we have chosen to work in the one area of online that has been an unqualified success. Everyone is looking to us as an example of digital marketing done right. And we’re looking at each other saying, “Okay, that worked. Now, what’s next?”

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