The Tricky Intersection of Social and Search

First published September 20, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

People don’t trust search ads. At least, 64% of people don’t trust search ads.

Apparently, search is not unique. According to the same research, nobody trusts ads of any kind. That’s not really surprising, given that it’s advertising. Its entire purpose is to make us suddenly want crap we don’t need. Small wonder we don’t trust it.

But you know what we do trust? The opinions of our friends.

Nothing I should have said up to this point should come as a shock to anyone reading this column. The only thing I found mildly surprising here was that we had such a low level of trust in search ads. Typically, search advertising is better aligned with intent and less hyperbolic in nature. But, apparently, we marketers have bastardized even the purity of search to the point where it’s less trusted than TV ads (gasp!)

So, to recap, we don’t trust ads, we do trust friends. This seems to present a simple solution: combine the two so that pesky advertising can bask in the halo effect of social endorsement.  You’ve been hearing about this for many years now, including several Search Insider columns from my fellow pundits and myself.

So, given that we’ve been testing the waters for sometime, why haven’t we got this advertising/social thing locked down yet? Why are Facebook stockholders wailing over their deflated portfolios? Why are we still stumbling out of the starting gate in our efforts to marry the magic of social and search? This shouldn’t be rocket science.

In fact, it’s more complex than rocket science. It’s psychology; it’s sociology and at least a handful of other “ologies.” When we talk about combing search and social — or for that matter, any type of advertising and social — we’re talking about trying to understand what makes humans tick.

If we talk about the simplest integration of the two, where social acts as a type of reinforcing influence that is subordinate to the primary act of searching, it’s not hard to follow the train of thought. We search for something, and in the results, we see some type of social badge that indicates how our social connections feel about the options presented to us. In this case, intent is already engaged. Social just serves to grease the decision wheels, helping us differentiate between our options. This type of integration can easily be seen on Google (Plus integration) as well as vertical engines such as TripAdvisor or Yelp.

But that type of integration doesn’t really fire the imagination of marketers and get their market acquisition juices flowing. It’s just hedging your bets on a market that’s already pretty easy to identify and capture. It does nothing to open up new markets. And it’s there where things get muddy.

The problem is this niggling question of intent. Somehow, something needs to activate intent in the mind of the prospect. It’s here where we truly need to be persuaded, moving our mental mechanisms from disengaged to engaged.

To do this, you need to reverse the order of importance between the two channels. Social recommendation needs to be in the driver’s seat, hopefully engaging and moving prospects to the point where they initiate a search. And that’s a much bigger hurdle to get over. Once the order is reversed, the odds of success plummet precipitously.

Here are just a few of the hurdles that have to be cleared:

Trust – Whichever channel is chosen to deliver the social recommendation, it has to be received with trust. This factor can be affected by how the recommendation is presented, the social proof that accompanies it, the aesthetic value of the interface, and the recipient’s attitude towards the channel itself. There is no lack of nuanced detail to consider here.

Alignment of Interest – When the recommendation is delivered, it must be of interest to the recipient. This relies on an accurate assessment of context and intent. Whatever the targeting channel, there has to be a pretty good chance of delivering the right message at the right time.

Social Modality – So, let’s assume you’ve figured out how to get the first two things right – you are using a trusted channel and you’ve done a good job of targeting. You’re not home free yet. Here’s the thing – we don’t act the same way all the time. We adapt our behaviors to fit the social circumstances we are currently in. There are predetermined modes of behavior that we conform to. It’s why we act one way with our coworkers and another way with our children. It’s why it’s okay to tip a waiter in a restaurant, but not okay to tip your mother-in-law after Sunday dinner. This modality is carried over from the real world to the virtual world of social networks. And it’s very difficult to determine what mode a prospect may be in. But it can make all the difference in the success of a socially targeted advertising message.

The Fight for Attention – This is the big one. Even if you do everything else right, your odds for successfully capturing the attention of a prospect and holding it for long enough to generate actual consideration of your product are not nearly as good as you might hope. You’d probably do better at a Vegas craps table. It all depends on what the incumbent’s intent is. What brought her to the online destination where you managed to intercept her? How critical is it that she finish what she’s currently doing? How engaged is she in the task at hand?

With the first example of search/social integration (search first, social second), the odds for success are pretty high, because intent has already been established. You’re just using social endorsement to expedite a process that’s already in motion.

But in the second example (social first, search second), we’re talking about an entirely different ball game. You have to derail the incumbent intent and replace it with a new one. Think of it as the difference between pushing a car downhill that’s already started to roll, and pushing the same car from a standing start up the hill.

No wonder we’re having some difficulty getting things rolling.

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