Engaging Conversation about Engagement

The AAAA, ARF and a lot of other acronyms out there are all waxing on eloquently about engagement being the new metric. Over at iMedia, David Smith says it’s not really a metric, but more of a psychographic.

I’ve had bones to pick with the trotting out of engagement as a one size fits all metric myself, and talked a little about this in one of my Search Insider columns. When you look at ARF’s existing media model

  • Vehicle exposure
  • Advertising exposure
  • Advertising attentiveness
  • Advertising communication
  • Advertising persuasion
  • Advertising response
  • Sales response

One thing strikes home. This doesn’t really work very well for “pull media”. It’s all about push. ARF’s aiming at adding engagement to the mix. Same thing holds true. That’s a brand metric that is relevant when you’re pushing messages at a market, rather than having them request the messages from you, via a search engine, for example. It’s a completely different dynamic, and needs a different set of measurements. Let me guess who’s driving the ARF MI4 agenda: big agencies perhaps?

Branding, Search and the Definition of Engagement

First published April 13, 2006 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Currently, the Advertising Research Foundation has an initiative called MI4. Its task is to create a cross-channel measurement of advertising effectiveness that can foster more accountability and facilitate multichannel marketing measurement. They have decided on the concept of engagement. It is a noble endeavor, and one that is much needed in our new, highly fragmented marketing world. But I fear there may be a fundamental chasm that one metric will be unable to bridge.

Joe Plummer, ARF’s Chief Research Officer, offered the group’s first draft of a working definition, “Engagement is turning on a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context.”

The Two Sides of Engagement

The problem, from a search perspective, is that there are two very different forms of engagement seen with consumers, and brand plays a very different role in each.

In most marketing, brand engagement is essential. You have to form a relationship between a brand and the latent or expressed needs and desires that lie with the consumer. Engagement is essential, because you have to form an emotional bond that can rise to the surface and express itself as top-of-mind awareness when consumers are ready to actively consider their options. In this instance, engagement is emotional, intuitive and often subconscious. It is this level of engagement that I think ARF is trying to define by somehow quantifying this emotional bond, referred to in market speak as being “turned on.”

But there is another type of engagement: engagement with the actual act of purchasing. Here, the consumer is engaged with a product, but not necessarily a particular brand. This is the typical point when a consumer will interact with a search engine. And with ARF’s working definition of engagement, I don’t think search will do particularly well in a multichannel comparison.

Branding and Search

One of the issues with search has been its value as a brand-building channel. The prevailing wisdom is that search is not a particularly effective brand-building marketing medium. I believe this to be true, but it’s because we’re trying to apply the first definition of engagement, the idea of engaging with a brand, not a product.

Consider a typical brand engagement measurement. If I did a brand lift study with a typical page of search results, where I showed a consumer the page, some results with brand messaging included, and determined if brand lift occurred, the results would probably be less than stellar. First of all, the act of searching is done with the left brain. It is a rational, logical interaction, not an emotional one. That’s why text-based advertising does well, and graphic or rich media doesn’t. We’re intellectually engaged in a task, and we’re looking for information that will help us succeed in accomplishing that task. We’re not looking to be influenced by an emotionally charged message. In fact, we block anything that smacks of overt commercialism or looks like advertising out of our consideration. We “thin slice” it out of the way. We are not emotionally connected. We are not looking to be “turned on.” We are evaluating our alternatives with a rational view.

When a consumer is interacting with a search engine, the time for brand engagement is already long past. That job had better be done already. Here is how branding does work in search.

Engagement with Buying, Not Branding

When I use a search engine for consumer research, I’m thinking in terms of the specific thing I’m looking for, not a specific brand. Generally, when I start, I will not use a branded search term. I am building a consideration set. Yes, I likely have brands I have an affinity for, but I won’t explicitly include them in my query. I’m looking for the search engine to provide me some alternatives to consider. Typically, searchers will look at four to five results before making their selection. These are usually the top sponsored, and the top two or three organic, results. This represents the prime and very limited “shelf space” of the search results page. If a brand appears that the consumer has an existing affinity for, the chances are good that the site will capture a click-through. If the brand doesn’t appear, the company has likely lost the opportunity to connect with a consumer that will soon be ready to buy.

Search: The Consummation of a Consumer Relationship

So, for brand marketers, the question is not, “does search actively engage the consumer in my brand messaging” but rather, “am I prepared not to have my brand present when my target consumer is looking to buy (or at least, research to buy)?” To me, it’s as elemental as not stocking the store shelf with your product. The consumer is not looking at building a relationship with a brand, he’s looking to consummate that relationship. Wouldn’t you want to be around for that rather important event?

So, to go back to ARF’s working definition of engagement, I don’t think it works for search. That definition of engagement is about building a relationship with the brand for “some day,” implanting a brand message for the time when the prospect turns into a shopper. When the shopper turns to search, that brand message is already planted. But if the brand isn’t present on the search results page “store shelf,” the message will be forgotten as the consumer clicks on the link of the next alternative.

I applaud ARF’s effort to define one all-encompassing metric, but when you have real people interacting with products and messaging in two very different ways, I’m not sure engagement, at least the way it’s currently defined, will be able to bridge the gap and do the job.

Targeting Your Search Campaign: Seeking 42-Year-Old Female In Kalamazoo

First published December 8, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Search marketers love granularity in campaign management. Correction: we love the results of granularity. That’s an important distinction. Do search marketers want to spend 98 percent of their remaining time on earth manually tweaking a 50,000-keyphrase campaign? Not me. But we also don’t want to set on the broad match “auto pilot” and let the campaign fly itself. In a marketing channel as measurable as search is, we can’t get the highly optimized success rates we’re looking for unless we roll up our sleeves and get dirty.

So here we sit, awash in spreadsheets and rule-based bid management tools, with metric acronyms (ROI, CPA, ROAS) up to our earlobes, wading through a tsunami of numbers, hoping at the end of it all that there will be a bottom-line result that brings a smile to our client’s face. Some are born to numbers, and some of us have numbers thrust upon us.

Search marketing by the numbers. So, at Chicago’s SES show, it was with interest that I sat in on the session where Jed Nahum from MSN adCenter provided a peek at his company’s new demographic targeting tools. Suddenly, search marketers have a whole new level of complexity to deal with. It’s not enough that we do keyword by keyword management. It’s not enough that we have to watch our competitors’ bids, the time of day, and the day of week. Throw geo-targeting into the mix for good measure. If you’re lucky enough to be included in MSN’s beta, you can now target by age and gender.

As panelist Kevin Lee from Did-It pointed out, if you took full advantage of all the permutations and combinations, you would end up with somewhere around 7,500 possible campaigns, per keyword! The arithmetically challenged amongst us in the audience felt the anxiety pangs in our chest.

It all depends on how you look at it. Numbers like this can be daunting to crunch, if you look at the entire universe. But the whole point of targeting is not to reach everyone; it’s to reach the right person, at the right time. If you start from the potential customer and work backwards, targeting provides a level of power unavailable before. It just depends on your perspective. If you’re looking at the work involved to manage a 50,000-keyphrase campaign, additional targeting options can look like a colossal pain in the butt. If you’re looking at the optimum way to reach that ideal customer, it will be your best friend.

The prerequisite here is getting to know ideal customers, intimately. Know who they are and what their intent is. Know where they live and where they work. Know what they’re looking for when they use a search engine and how they’ll search for it. And most importantly, know what they’re looking for when they end up on your site. If you have firm answers for all these questions, you’ll love the new targeting features that MSN is making available, because they will provide the shortest possible path to your best prospects.

Targeting in action. Kevin Lee added more sage advice: you always want to buy your best clicks first. The eye tracking research undertaken by Did-It, Enquiro and EyeTools showed that top sponsored positions deliver substantially higher visibility and click-throughs than do the side sponsored positions. You’re looking at a visibility multiple of 3X to 4X, and a similar boost in click-throughs. But for competitive words, those positions come at a premium that may be beyond the reach of many advertisers. Now, if you can boost your bids for your carefully selected prime segments through pinpoint targeting, you can gain those top spots for just the right prospects, and then drop out of the top for less desirable segments.

You can’t target everyone… yet. Obviously, MSN can’t deliver targeted search ads to every user of MSN Search. To enable age and gender demographic targeting, users have to volunteer some information about themselves, either through signing up for a Hotmail account, a MSN Passport or some other Microsoft account. Nahum was pushed for what percentage of MSN’s user base this might be. His answer was a coy “larger than you might think.” While the transparency of the answer wasn’t what the audience was looking for, moderator Danny Sullivan made this salient observation: “Look, compared to the targeting you can do through television or almost any other medium, this is a quantum leap forward.” Hard to argue that one.

Get used to it. In the recent full speed game of one-upmanship that the search engines are playing, it won’t be long before Google and Yahoo! have introduced their own targeting tools. This will be the new reality of search marketing. It’s somewhat ironic that a marketing channel that took off because of its self-service simplicity is now becoming one of the most complex media-buying challenges in advertising today. But with complexity comes power, and there may be no channel available to marketers today that’s more powerful than search.

Measuring the Impact of Google Analytics

First published November 30, 2005 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Google’s recent announcement of a free analytics tool has sent shockwaves through the online community. There’s nothing surprising about this. What is surprising is the impact and where it’s being felt.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach this story for almost two weeks now. This is my third attempt at this column. I rewrote most of it the day of my deadline. I suspect if I had a few more days, the story would rewrite itself at least a couple more times.

Here’s what I thought the story originally was. The giant, Google, launches a free service and in the process decimates the online analytics industry. I happened to be at a show a couple weeks ago where I had a chance to chat with John Marshall, CEO of ClickTracks, a highly respected analytics provider. Wonderful, I thought, an interview with a victim. This would be great: pathos, tragedy, conflict. I had me a column. John didn’t play along. This wasn’t a tragedy, he said. This would be good for the entire industry. There we had the first twist of the story, and the first rewrite.

I asked John what he thought when he heard Google’s announcement.”My first thought was that I was wrong,” he said. “I didn’t think you could provide Web analytics for free because you can’t afford the cost of support. Customers need a lot of hand-holding. Then, the more I thought, the more I realized that I may not have been wrong. Google is only providing support by e-mail. I don’t think that will be enough. There isn’t a single sale we make where the customer doesn’t have questions during the process. “The main limiting factor in analytics today isn’t technology, it’s people and brain power,” he added. “The fundamental challenge that remains to be solved is the interpretation of the numbers. There just are not enough people who can look at the numbers, get the message and implement the required solutions.”

“If you’re right, and not enough people know what to do with the numbers, won’t Google introducing a free tool ultimately help?” I asked him. “There will be more people than ever exposed to analytics reporting, because there’s no price barrier anymore. Granted, many will be lost, but many will also learn through trial and error. Will this build the overall demand for analytics?” “Absolutely,” he answered. “Google Analytics will ultimately be good for the entire industry. It will boost adoption. More people will use analytics. You have to remember, there have been free tools before. Analog was one of the original analytics programs, and it’s open source, free. In fact, it was developed by the CTO of ClickTracks. We know all about competing with free. We’ll gain more than we lose.”

OK, I thought. John’s putting a positive spin on this. But surely, when Google introduces a free product with a pretty good feature set, it will cause bloodshed. I wrote my second draft, which was along the lines of Google becoming the Big Box of the analytics industry, and wiping out a lot of independents. Thinking I had it locked, I emailed a draft to John for his feedback. My view was that while the chances looked good for quality tools like ClickTracks, there would still be significant pain.

Much to my surprise, John e-mailed back a totally different story. In the one week that had passed since we first spoke, business had never been better! Damn, another rewrite, with the column due in a day.

Here were some of John’s primary points.

First of all, people don’t seem comfortable with the fact that Google is holding all this data about their sites and its performance. “The privacy backlash has expanded in online forums and is creating a groundswell of concerns. Interest in our products is quantifiably higher than before!” wrote John. “Customers are simultaneously aware of Web analytics AND aware of data privacy concerns. The degree to which customers are coming in the doors here at ClickTracks and opening discussions with ‘is my data private?’ has surprised us.” The concerns about privacy have not been restricted to the US., he added. “Our products are popular in Japan where, like the US, there is huge skepticism towards centralized data collection. In our experience, customers want to own their data. Customers are suddenly savvy enough to ask this question before signing up”

Secondly, Google has clearly stumbled out of the starting gate, failing to scale quickly enough to meet demand. “Google is clearly struggling to support this service,” John wrote. “This raises concerns about data integrity and accessibility in the long run, especially for a service where the customer has no recourse.” John’s feeling is that the Google Analytics approach goes a step in the wrong direction, moving closer to third-party collection of visitor data. Google always maintains the same position on privacy. “Don’t worry,” they tell us. “We would never do anything evil with this information.” But they never get around to really telling us what their intention is.

As many are pointing out, the data could be used as intelligence to bump ad prices up or allow for cross site profiling of visitors. Sophisticated customers are aware of this and are asking a lot of pointed question before they commit to an analytics solution. I’m sure Google has been surprised by the impact of its announcement. Demand has been so great that Google has had to lock out users until they get a chance to catch up. But they probably weren’t prepared for the degree of concern over privacy of information, or the emerging portrait of Google as Big Brother.

At this point, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that this will be a topic for at least one or two further columns in the future. But for today at least, this column is done.