Aligned Intent: A Different Ad Engagement Metric

On Tuesday, I talked about the importance of information foraging in understanding our online behaviors. Yesterday, I talked about how we navigate online based on habit and instinct, keeping our thinking to a minimum. Both of those behaviors are threatening  traditional ad revenue models. The very nature of engagement with advertising is undergoing a dramatic shift. Today, I want to talk more about that shift, because at Enquiro, we’ve seen dramatic evidence of it in our research over the past few years.

The Traditional Model

Let’s begin by exploring how advertising has worked up to now – the model that Rupert Murdoch is still pinning all his hopes on.

In the past, we used a “destination” based information gathering strategy. We depended on someone to gather the information and get it to us at a destination that would become a mental landmark for us. This was the model that gave rise to our traditional news industry. We trusted our favored sources to cover the world for us. It was their job to stay on top of what was happening, interpret it and present it back to us. Publishers developed editorial voices and we grew to trust those voices. We didn’t have time to cover every possible news channel, so we short listed it down to the information sources that best matched our interests and personality. We picked our favourites and trusted these few sources to keep us informed. These favorites formed the most visited locations in our mental information “landscape”.

Once we had our list of a handful of information sources, we would set some time aside every day to stay informed. It was a different paradigm of information gathering. We treated our sources as destinations and made the trip worthwhile by investing some time in it. We’re read the paper in the morning. We’d watch the news at night. We’d listen to news radio. In each of these cases, we’d take a discrete and substantial chunk of our available time and devote it to “staying informed”. There was no specific piece of information we were looking for. We trusted our information sources to serve us something interesting. Our intent wasn’t tied to any particular topic, although there might be sections that we favored (sports or business). Our intent was simply to spend some time with our favorite information source. Just like a trip to a physical destination, we understood that this journey would take some time.

This relationship, that of a favored source, then offered the published a willing set of eyeballs without any set agenda. The audience was there to browse through the content offered. That was the objective. And that objective allowed publishers, and through them, advertisers, to make some safe assumptions: the audience would be there for awhile, the audience had no other urgent priorities, and the audience could be safely categorized by the characteristics of the ideal audience of the channel. One could assume that the reason they favoured the channel was that they matched the target profile. All of this formed the foundation of traditional advertising as we know it.

The publishers job was to amass the audience. By doing so, they could then go to advertisers and deliver the audience. And it was the advertiser’s job to catch the audience’s attention. Again, remember, the audience had already set a significant chunk of time aside to spend with the publisher and the audience had no specific intent other than visiting their information “destination.” This mindset is critical to understand, because it forms the “before” state of the shift I’ll be exploring. The audience had to be distracted by the advertising, but the distraction was a minor derailing of our attention. Let’s dive a little deeper here.

Yesterday, I talked about the switching on and off our our neural autopilots as we do any mental task. Our attention and the full power of our brains only get focused when we need to. The rest of the time, we’re subconsciously scanning to see if there’s anything that merits our attention. The arousal of intent, the mental embedding of a clear objective, kicks the brain into high gear and causes us to focus our attention, including the full power of the frontal lobes – what we can consider the turbocharger of the brain. With those mental mechanics understood, let’s look at how we might browse a newspaper.

Newspapers, or any traditional information source, look the way they do because over years of trial and error, publishers and advertisers have discovered what it takes to catch a few fleeting seconds of a brain’s attention while it’s idling on autopilot. As we pick up the paper, there is no intent which has aroused the full power of the brain. It’s doing what it should be doing, idling as the eyes scan the headlines, graphics and other information cues, looking for something of interest that merits the brain kicking into a higher degree of engagement. What catches our eye depends totally on what we’re interested in. With no set mental agenda, when we look at a newspaper, a story on major crime, a business report on a company we know, a box score for a team we’re a fan of or an ad for a car we’ve been considering all stand a good chance of dragging our eye balls to them and jolting our brain from it’s semi-slumber. The typical display ad (at least, the effective ones) have been honed by years of experimentation to be very good at this. Their entire purpose is to stop the eyeball just long enough for a fragment of the message to sink into the brain.

The Just In Time Information Economy

Now, let’s look at what’s shifted. Through the ubiquity of information online and the reasonable effectiveness of web search in making that information instantly available, we’ve changed the way we gather information. We’ve moved from a “destination” to a “just in time” information economy. Let me return to our food foraging analogy for just a second to illustrate this.

When you shop for groceries, you probably have a favoured store. You trust this store because they have a good selection, the produce is fresh, the deli counter has your favourite cheese, the prices are reasonable, the location is convenient and the staff is courteous. This store becomes your primary food destination, just as a newspaper could become your primary information destination. For certain items, prices may be a little cheaper elsewhere, the produce might be a little better at an organic whole food store and the deli counter may be amazing at a little store you know across town, but it’s just too much trouble to go to all these destinations. You compromise and stick with your store, giving it your loyalty.

But let’s imagine that you could build a pick up window right into your kitchen. Through this pick up window, you could order any food item and it would instantly be delivered to you from any store in the world, right when you need it. No travel was necessary. The idea of a destination suddenly becomes obsolete. Food comes to you, just in time. What would this do to your foraging strategies? How often would you visit your favourite store? Perhaps there would be occasions when an item from your store was offered by your magic “food window”, and you might order it. You might even feel twinges of old loyalties. But the nature of the relationship has forever changed. You’ve become store “agnostic”. Now all you care about are the food items you order. And your intent has also changed. Previously, you went on a “shopping trip” for an hour to a store to pick up a list full of items. Your intent was focused on the store, not an individual item. But with your magic window, if you’re making a recipe and suddenly find you’re out of shallots, your intent is focused on the item you need, not the store you get it from. All you care about is getting the best shallots at the best price. It’s an important mental shift.

That’s what search has done for information. We care much less about the source of the information and more about the nature of the information itself. Also, we have shifted our intent away from the source of the information and to the quality and relevancy of the information itself. This has a profound effect on the nature of engagement with advertising that may sit alongside that information.

The Alignment of Intent

The Just in Time Information Economy has implanted intent in the minds of online users now, dramatically raising the attention threshold that must be bridged by advertising. Think of our mental process as a train. If the train is idling through a rail yard with no particular destination, it’s not that difficult for a hitchhiker (which is what most advertising is, messages interrupting you just long enough to hop on your brain for the ride) to jump on board. But if the train is going full speed towards a destination, the hitchhiker had better be a very fast runner. The Just In Time information economy has meant that many more visitors to online information sites are speeding express trains with a firm destination in mind, rather than than idling in a rail yard. We visit sites because we’ve come through a search engine looking for specific information. The site that hosts that information is secondary to our intent.

In the past few years we’ve done a number of studies of engagement with advertising that have yielded some surprising findings:

  • When it comes to ad awareness (participants remembering seeing an ad on a site) display and video perform best, search and text ads perform worst.
  • When it comes to brand recall (participants remembering the brand featured in the ad) display and video still perform better than search and text, although the gap is dramatically less.
  • When it comes to click throughs, search performs best, followed by text, display and video
  • When it comes to purchase intent, search and text are substantially better than display and video.

Ads that are relevant to the information they sit beside (as in Google’s AdSense network) also have this strange inverse relationship:

  • For ad awareness, non contextually relevant ads performed better than contextually relevant ones
  • For brand recall, it was close to even, with contextually relevant ads having a slight edge
  • For click throughs, contextually relevant ads blew the doors off non contextually relevant ones
  • For purchase intent, again, contextually relevant ads were the clear winner.

Why Ad Awareness Does Not Equal Ad Effectiveness

This is counter intuitive. If an ad is noticed and recognized as an ad, it should have done it’s job, right? According to the old rules, that’s all we ever asked an ad to do. But somehow it seems the rules have changed. Suddenly, ads that often don’t even seem like ads (after all, they’re just a few lines of text) are drastically outperforming more traditional ads where it counts, motivating a prospect to take action. We’ve tested a number of traditional best practices, including more effective creative, increased exposure both through frequency and more channels and this inverse relationship held: search and text outperformed flashing graphics, blaring video and looping audio. What gives?

The answer is the introduction of intent. By having intent planted in the minds of the prospect, by focusing their attention on an objective, the rules of interaction with ads has suddenly changed. When we have intent, we plant a mental objective which narrows our attention and focuses it only on relevant items that get us closer to the objective. Anything not aligned with that intent suffers from “inattentional blindness”. In eye tracking, we see this often has people scan a page, looking directly at an ad for several seconds yet afterwards swear they didn’t see the ad. The most famous example is the video “Gorillas in our Midst.” The unsuspecting are asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed in the video. Once attention is focused, most viewers don’t even notice the man in the gorilla suit walking right through the middle of the teams. If you haven’t seen this, I just spoiled it for you, but you can still try the experiment with your friends.

If a visitor lands on a page with a specific intent, their interactions look much different than those with no intent. They’re laser focused on relevant content. They spend almost no time looking at content that’s not aligned with their intent, including ads. Often, a single glance to identify it as advertising (thus the high ad awareness recall) is the limit of interaction. And the more an ad looks like an ad, the quicker it’s eliminated for consideration. The visitor becomes blind to it.

But if an ad is aligned with intent, it ceases to be an ad. It becomes a relevant information cue, a navigation option, a link laced with information scent. It becomes valuable because it matches our objectives. The user evaluates it along with all the other relevant navigation options on the page. This is exactly what happens with search ads, and the more relevant a text ad on the page, the more likely this is to happen.

Why This Does Not Bode Well for Rupert Murdoch

Murdoch, and for that matter, everyone else who still depends on a revenue from a “Destination” based ad model, will lose in this transition. The ones that will win are those that effectively leverage the alignment of intent and the “Just in Time” Information economy. Tomorrow, I’ll walk through the specifics of why the “Destination” ad model is doomed.

A Tale of Two Houses

First published May 21, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I have a difference of opinion with Gian Fulgoni, chairman of comScore. Actually, it’s not so much a difference as a question of context. He believes there’s room for more visual branding on the search results page. I believe this is a potentially dangerous area that has to be handled very carefully on the part of the engines.

This issue came up during the opening session of day two at the recent Search Insider Summit, when I posed a question  two different ways to the audience. First, I asked them, as marketers,  how many would like to see richer branding opportunities on the results page. Almost every hand went up. Then I asked them the same question, but this time as users. Some hands went down immediately. Many others wavered noticeably, as the paradigm shift exposed underlying hypocrisy. Others remained resolutely high on the idea.

The reason for the mixed reaction was that, for users, the ideal search experience depends on the context of the situation. Visually richer is not always better. There’s some subtle psychology at play here. So let’s explore it in a story.

It’s a Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood

Imagine we both live on the same street. In fact, we’re next-door neighbors. I travel a lot. I happen to know you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. So begins the story of My House and Your House:

Your House

In this story, the reason I travel a lot is because I’m a commissioned travel agent. I get paid if I book you on a trip somewhere. And you don’t know it, but I get paid a lot more if you go to Disney World. So every morning, I come over to your house and knock on your door wearing my Mickey Mouse ears, carrying in one hand a portable stereo blasting “When You Wish Upon a Star” and in the other a fistful of Disney travel brochures. Each day, I visit with a determination to book you on the next flight to Orlando.  Now, if Disney is in your travel plans, perhaps this isn’t as obnoxious as it sounds. But if two weeks in the Magic Kingdom sounds as appealing as the Bataan Death March, my neighborly welcome will wear a little thin. Sure, I got your attention, but you also listed your house for sale shortly after my visit.

My House

Now forget all of the above. This time, I travel a lot because I’m worldly, adventurous and wise. I’m also wonderfully informative. Over the backyard fence, you mentioned that you might be thinking of taking a vacation this summer. In neighborly fashion, I invited you over for a coffee and to ask me any questions about past trips I’ve taken, in case any of my previous destinations might be appealing. You take me up on the offer and ring my doorbell. We sit down and I ask, “So, any particular areas you’re thinking of visiting?”

“Hmmm, I’ve always dreamed of the Mediterranean. Perhaps the French or Italian Riviera?”

“Cinque Terra is wonderful, so is Nice, Cannes and Monaco, but don’t rule out Spain or Portugal. I’ve been to them all.”

A House Divided…

Think of your reaction, first in your house, then in mine. As you no doubt realized, your house represents typical advertising; my house is search.

And the context is different in subtle but important ways. That’s why it becomes dangerous when we start trying to combine the two. In my house, you’re engaged and curious. You’ll ask me what I love about Portugal, or why I didn’t recommend Cannes more enthusiastically.  And you’ll trust me more if you know you’re getting my objective opinion. After I know a little about your preferred destinations, you might be interested if I introduce you to my friend, the travel agent.  You would even find that helpful. You’re open to a sponsored message, as long as it’s relevant to your interests and fits into the rules of the overall experience.

All this gets to the context of my difference of opinion with Gian. Visual richness is appropriate if it’s relevant and welcome. It’s annoying if it’s intrusive. And that line would be in the control of the engines and the advertisers.

If I come to your house uninvited, my job is to convince you to open the door. But if you come to my house, my job is to inform and help. You came through the door on your own. The house we live in is a great place, but there are rules we have to live by. Otherwise, no one will come to visit us.

Live from Captiva: The Digital Divide

First published May 7, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Gian Fulgoni has a better view of the online landscape than most of us. As the chairman of comScore, he has access to a massive database that captures every click of online activity from over 2,000,000 panel members. So when it comes to spotting trends, Gian’s got a pretty good vantage point.

Online Branding for CPG

As you’re reading this, Gian’s probably giving the opening keynote at the Search Insider Summit  on Captiva Island in Florida. I’m not sure what Gian will be covering, but he did share a few slides with me and I’m sure they’ll make their way into his keynote.  They’re the results of a study that showed the relative effectiveness of online and television advertising in driving purchases of consumer packaged goods ranging from cookie mixes and pizza to toothpaste and deodorant.

Eighty-two percent of the online campaigns showed positive sales or unit lift, with an average lift of 18%. Further, short-term online campaigns matched the effective lift of long-term TV campaigns (9% lift with online, 8% with TV).

Consumers Don’t Differentiate, So Why Do Marketers?

What is interesting about the study to me is the artificial line we still tend to draw between online and offline marketing.  And when I say “we,”  I mean “we” the marketers, not “we” the people. The chasm between online and offline is slightly narrower than it was before, but I find true integrated marketing only exists in the sales hyperbole of agencies, with little evidence of it in the real world.  With the advertisers I’m familiar with, the online marketing department barely talks with the offline Marcom folks, let alone sits down with them to plan out an integrated strategy.

Consumers don’t do this. If a consumer is considering a purchase, she pursues the most effective means necessary to research the purchase. Offline awareness leads to online consideration. Online consideration leads to offline visits to a retail location. Offline visits can lead to online price checking. We as consumers jump back and forth across the digital divide with ease, yet for marketers, the chasm seems unbridgeable. Why is this?

Part of it is attitude. Traditional marketers ignored online until it was too late. Their tardiness left us digital folks free reign to set up shop, thinking it would be, at best, an incremental channel that would never threaten the main event. But now, just a few short years later, you’ve got studies like Gian’s coming out saying that online might just be as effective as TV in driving sales of potato chips and pop. Hard to fathom, but true.

Branding: One Search at a Time

Even more startling, lowly search seems to have some brand-building chops of its own, at least when measured at one critical consumer intersection, active consideration of a purchase. My company has done a number of studies for Google, in seven different product categories and markets from Australia to North America showing the brand lift of search. Guess what? Lowly search, described by some as the ValPak of online, consistently delivered brand lift numbers averaging in the double digits. And that was before consumers even got to where the real brand building happens, the manufacturer’s Web site. Just a search ad alone lifted brand awareness, brand affinity and likelihood to purchase. Not bad for a handful of words showing up somewhere on a results page.

I have no idea what the “buzz” of Captiva will be, but I suspect we’ll spend at least some time talking about this ridiculous divorce between online and offline. Ironically, it seems like the recession is finally bringing the two sides a little closer together. I don’t understand why we marketers are taking so long to get it. Buyers seemed to figure it out a long time ago.

Measuring Success After The Click

First published April 23, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Avinash Kaushik speculates that Bounce Rate might be the sexiest Web metric ever. Scott Brinker has a whole blog dedicated to post-click marketing.  I believe it was Craig MacDonald at Covario who said bad landing pages are where good leads go to die. And I’ve been quoted as saying (categorically, no less) that the single most important thing we can do for the client happens after the search click.

Start Swimming Downstream

It always amazes me that search marketers spend huge amounts of time tweaking everything to do with the search page and very little time worrying about what happens downstream from it. It’s symptomatic of the siloed nature of search, a marketing practice that sits apart from other channels and the online user experience itself. Yet, what’s the point of a good search campaign if we end up dumping all those leads onto a poor Web site?

Perhaps the reason we don’t spend more time worrying about user experience is that it forces us to learn something about the user. You have to take responsibility for connecting the dots between intent and content, reading the user’s mind and trying to deliver what it is he or she is looking for. When it’s all said and done, maybe it’s easier just to worry about maximum costs per click or generating more link love.

But everything that matters starts with the search click rather than ends with it. That’s the first introduction to the prospect, the first opportunity to make a good impression. And from that moment on, the success of that blossoming relationship depends on the success of the user experience.

Post-Click Live at Captiva

 At the Captiva Island Search Insider Summit in a few weeks, we’ll actually be talking about the world of opportunity downstream from the click in a panel I’m very excited about. “After the Search Click” will be a live, clinical look at the success of the onsite experience. Enquiro is even bringing our eye tracking lab down so we can do some on-site testing and share the results with the group. The aforementioned Scott Brinker from Ion Interactive and Lance Loveday from Closed Loop Marketing join me. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing a stage with both of these gentlemen multiple times in the past.

Students of Human Nature

 To me, the immense gray area of the onsite experience has always been infinitely more interesting than the more black and white tactics of search marketing. For me, the latter is simply the means to an end, and the end requires you to be a student of human nature. For example, I’m fascinated by the subtle but distinct differences between how males scan a page and how females scan it.  Or the difference in behavior between those who grew up in the online world versus those who have adopted it and adapted to it as adults.  And if I showed you the heat map of a visitor who went to a Web site with one specific task in mind, as opposed to those who are just there to browse, the difference would astound you. But how often do we stop to think of these things as we put our search campaigns together? All too often, those leads are dumped on a generic home page or an anemic landing page with nary a scrap of relevance to be seen anywhere. Of course, even a good landing page is no guarantee of success. It’s just one more step to the end goal, a journey that could be cut short by poor site search tools, bad navigation or an overly inquisitive form.

I could make a blanket statement saying I see far more bad sites than good sites out there. But really, that’s not for me to say. The success of a site depends on the people using it and what their goals are. It should be a clean, well-lighted, well-labeled path.  I can say, as a frequent online user, it’s very rare that I’m impressed by a web experience. So in that regard, there’s much to be said still about improving the post-click experience. Join us for the discussion in a few weeks in Florida.

Can Brands Keep Their Promise in a Digital World?

First published February 26, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

To speculate on the future of brand advertising is certainly beyond the scope of this column, but I got myself into this mess. I opened the can of worms two weeks ago in the Search Insider by warning that we could be running the search funnel dry. Ryan DeShazer, from HSR, called me on it and asked me what will replace traditional brand building in our new digital environment. Last week, I began the journey by talking about two different types of brands: Brand Promises and Brand Religions. Today, I’d like to paint a hypothetical scenario of where awareness marketing might go for those brands  that are implicit promises. Next week I’ll tackle religions.

Timing is everything

One of the challenges of brand advertising has always been the disconnect between the times in our lives when we’re thinking about a product and the opportunity for a brand exposure. How do you deliver a brand message at just the right time?  The goal of situational targeting became advertising’s Holy Grail. A few channels, such as in-store promotions and well-placed coupons, at least got marketers closer to being in the right place at the right time, but did little to build brand at this critical time. A significant discount might prompt a consumer to try an unfamiliar brand, but the new brand was always fighting the well worn groove of consumer habits. Trying a new product once doesn’t guarantee you’ll ever try it again (reading list suggestion: “Habit, the 95% of Behavior that Marketers Ignore.” )

The disconnect between the purchasing situation and the need to establish brands mentally (literally burn them into our brains) meant marketers played both ends against the middle. They used TV and other branding mediums to build awareness. Then they used direct-response tactics to tip the balance toward purchase when the situation was right. But in between was a huge gap that has swallowed billions of advertising dollars. The challenge facing digital marketing is how to bridge the gap.

Don’t Take Our Word for It
The answer to bridging the gap for a brand that promises quality lies in a few converging areas: the online social graph and mobile computing. Both areas are in their infancy, but they hold the promise of solving the Brand Promise marketer’s dilemma.

If a brand is a promise of quality, we want to hear confirmation of that by someone other than the brand. A brand’s advertising might make us willing to consider them, but we want confirmation of the promise of quality from an objective third party. The Web has made it much easier to access the opinions of others. And, through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, we are now able to “crowdsource” — reach out to our trusted circle of family, friends and acquaintances and quickly poll them for their opinions. But this is still a fragmented, multi-step process that requires a lot of time and cognitive effort on our part. What happens when we weave the pieces together into a smooth continuum?

Keeping Marketing in Hand
Mobile has the ability to do that, because it provides us with a constant online connection. Consider the implications. As we store more of our “LifeBits”  (check out Aaron Goldman’s columns  on this fascinating project) online and rely more and more on digital assistance to make our lives easier, the odds of determining our intent by  where we are and what we’re interacting with in our own “Web” improve dramatically. Our online persona becomes an accurate reflection of our mental one.  With mobile devices, our digital and physical locations merge and through technologies like MOBVIS, we can even parse our surrounding visually. All this combines to give the marketer very clear signals of what we might be thinking about at any given time.

Now, advertising can be delivered with pinpoint accuracy: think of it as behavioral targeting on steroids. Not only that, it can be the first step in a continuum: we get a targeted and relevant messaging, with the ability to seamlessly pull back objective reviews and opinions on any given product, location or service. Going one step further with just one click, we can reach out through multiple social networks to see if any of our circle of acquaintances has an opinion on the purchase we’re considering. If brands are a promise, this allows us to vet the promise instantly. If all checks out, we quickly check for best prices and possible alternatives within the geographic (or online) parameters we set.

In this scenario, the nature of brand-building for the brand promise product changes dramatically. We rely less on manufacturer’s messaging and more on how the brand resonates through the digital landscape. Brand preference becomes more of a spur-of-the-moment decision. Of course, the brands will still try to stake the high ground in our mental terrain through traditional awareness-building, but I suspect it will become increasingly more difficult to do so. Ultimately, brands will try to move their position from one of a promise of quality (a promise easily checked online) to a religion, where faith can play the spoiler.

No Search is an Island

First published February 12, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Today I am plagued by ambiguity. I’m happy and scared. Relieved and cautious. Excited and apprehensive. And it all has to do with search and how we use it. On one hand, I’m relieved that search seems to be the sole marketing channel that’s actually benefiting from the crushing economic pressure. On the other hand, I’m worried that we may be short-sighted in grabbing onto search as a life preserver in raging marketing waters.

Search: The Connector

My ambiguity comes from the unique nature of search. We consider search a marketing channel, and in recent times we’re treating it as such. But it’s not. Search is glue. Search is intent expressed. Search is a mirror of our dreams, objectives and fears. To treat search as a channel divorces it from its real role as an integral connector. And, as such, search is inextricable from not just the online world, but the offline one as well. Whatever happens, whenever it happens, it shows up in the search trends.

And therein lies the source of my internal turmoil. If you look at search as a marketing channel, the current move by advertisers down the funnel, driving towards more and more accountable advertising, is predictable and a good thing. Search is certainly effective and measurable. But if we look at search as the connecter between demand and fulfillment, there’s an inherent problem looming. As budgets dry up in creating awareness and eventually demand, search inventories will ultimately dry up as well.

Obsessive Optimization

I’ve talked to a few search marketers here at SMX West who are saying their clients are pushing them to drop generic terms and stick to branded ones because they convert better. Even as effective as search is, we can’t resist trying to pump conversion numbers even higher.

If advertisers are this obsessive about cutting all the fat from their marketing, it seems they’ve backed themselves to the very brink of a dangerous precipice. One more step and they’ll have reduced their marketing efforts to managing a paid search campaign for “I want to buy an Acme Widget online today and I have my credit card out.”

Everyone is focused on the thinnest possible slice at the bottom of the funnel, without worrying about priming the pump at the top. While it may bolster search revenues in the short term as budgets migrate in from all other channels, in the long term this shortsightedness will prove disastrous.

I believe there is a tremendous amount of optimization that has to happen across all marketing channels. I’m not saying that all budgets should stay put where they are. But I do worry about an obsessive focus on capturing late-stage demand, even if it is through search.

You have to develop your market and create awareness. Search doesn’t work if nothing is creating awareness. Those branded queries won’t suddenly materialize out of the ether. Marketers seem inclined to take huge pendulum swings in their approach, one minute tossing branding money around by the bucketful, and the next clamping down on anything that isn’t a sure conversion. There has to be a happy medium.

For Every Action…

Search is the last half of a cause-and-effect chain. If you just focus on the effect, sooner or later the cause will cease to exist. As search marketers, much as we gleefully accept the new budget flowing in from other channels, we have to understand the inherent integrated nature of search. If we accept the windfall in the short term, we’ll end up paying in the long term.

I’m personally thankful that search is the boat I’ve chosen to ride out this particular economic storm. There’s no place I’d rather be. But I think it’s naïve to ignore the macro effects that will impact search behavior. As I said before, whatever happens, wherever it happens, whenever it happens, it will be reflected in search. And as all other marketing channels begin to run dry because of budgeting cutbacks, that too will show in search trends.

Search Branding: A Problem of Metrics

First published November 13, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

This whole question of branding in search came about because of a rather fuzzy definition: what exactly is brand lift? How do you measure it?

This was the problem we wrestled with when we did the first search brand lift study for Google and Honda. Failing anything better, we did the standard tests of aided and unaided message and brand recall. I’m not a huge fan of these metrics, because I don’t think they adequately capture the neural basis of brand. But given the nature of the study (which included a survey and some eye tracking) it was our only feasible alternative.

What is Brand Lift?

Before I talk more about the metrics, let’s talk more about the concept of brand lift, as it’s central to the argument. What is brand lift? As measured by brand recall metrics, it’s awareness of the brand. But actually, it’s to see if a concept of the brand is lodged in working memory immediately after exposure to the brand.

So, let’s walk through this a bit. We create different search results page scenarios with variations of exposure in our test brand, including a control with no exposure. We create scenarios that set up a reasonably natural interaction and scanning of the results page. And, at some point after this interaction (usually immediately following) we ask participants if they remember seeing a brand on the results page. We start with an open-ended question (unaided) and then provide a randomized list of brands to see if they choose the test brand (aided). We then measure variance against the control, correlated with the nature of the exposure.

Given this framework, we did find brand lift. Significant brand lift. And in one aspect, this is great news for marketers. The fact that a brand remained lodged in working memory is a very big win for search in capturing consumer attention. I’m going to be talking about why this is so in the next column. If we equate brand lift with engaged attention and carving a (temporary) niche in the prefrontal cortex, the study proves there’s a strong connection with search.

Brand Lift is in the Eyes of the Beholder

But this is where the metrics get fuzzy. Brand lift seems to be many things to many people. This is why ARF decided that we needed a new metric and started down the road of defining engagement. But the problems that soon plagued this endeavor highlighted the inherent challenge. Our engagement with brands is not a one-size-fits-all, measurable occurrence. Brand relationships, like all relationships, are complex and shifting. There are many degrees. In additional, there’s a question of modality, based on context and intent. My relationship with a brand, say Apple, can be significantly different if I’m shopping for a new laptop for work than if I’m helping my daughter with an iTunes download. Advertisers want a single, simple quantifiable number that defines our brand relationship. Such a beast doesn’t exist.

So, how do you measure lift? What is lift? Is it a temporary lodging in working memory? Is it a long-term strengthening of the synaptic connections in long-term memory? Is it firing up the limbic systems that are our emotional gatekeepers, getting a lump in our throat when we see a tearjerker ad? Is it digging out our deepest primal drives when we see attractive women hanging around guys on a golf course, implying the beer they’re carrying around (but, of course, not consuming) is the reason the women are volunteering for caddy duties (Yeah, like that takes place in the real world)?

We were asked to prove brand lift on the search page, and we did, by one metric. It’s an important metric — a vital one, in fact. But when advertisers hear brand lift, they all hear different things. The definition of brand lift seems to be in the mind of the beholder.  Ironically, I’ve been reading a book that’s taken on the impossible task of explaining quantum mechanics to me. The mind numbing problem with quantum mechanics is that the physical nature of something isn’t defined until it’s observed. Until then, it’s a probability wave. I’m suspecting the same thing might be happening with brand metrics. They don’t take shape until someone tries to define them. There are just too many variables.

A Call for Consilience

The problem with branding is that marketers don’t know what they don’t know. They have learned marketing and the art of pushing a message out, but very, very few marketers have taken the time to understand what happens on the receiving end. They know nothing about cognition, emotional tagging, the formation of memories or any other workings of the human brain. Only now, with the consilience that is beginning to happen in the academic world, are we applying neuroscience to marketing.  So, marketers are desperately trying to apply a universal metric to something that largely defies measurement, and the marketers don’t even know why it’s not working.  They’re getting numbers they can plug into the dashboards, but no one is sure if they’re indicative of what happens in the real world, or, more accurately, our neural representation of the real world.

The Brand Effect on the Search Results Page

First published October 30, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I walked through an interaction with the search page step by step and looked cognitive engagement with the page. To understand the nature of branding on the search page, you first have to understand how we interact with brand messaging on the page.

Quick to Click

We left off last week as we picked up enough information scent on the page to encourage us to click on the listing. It’s important to understand that this is not a rigorous appraisal of relevance. The amount of deliberation is directly related to the amount of risk involved in a click through, determined by as much time will we have to invest should we click through. The amount of time we invest in deliberation on the search page is telling. In most search interactions we’ve recorded in our lab, average time to first click is around 10 to 12 seconds, during which most people scan 4 to 5 listings. That amounts to 2 to 3 seconds per listing. Once the click-through happens, deliberation is almost as limited on the landing page; 10 to 14 seconds is spent determining if information scent is sufficiently present to stick with the page. If not, we’re clicking the back button and heading back to the results page.

I tally up these times to make a point: we don’t spend a lot of time interacting with search messages. This is spot scanning at best, not a thorough assessment. We don’t read listings, we glance at words. When enough hits register to establish relevancy matches with the goal of our search, based on the words we used in the query and those that remain locked up in our prefrontal cortex, we click.

Fruit Foraging

Let’s go back to the foraging analogy, because it helps establish the mindset we’re dealing with. You’re looking for oranges and walk into a mall with 20 different storefronts opening off the main entrance. Each storefront has signage in front with a brief description of the items they carry. Most appear to offer oranges. However, you don’t want to spend the rest of your day going from store to store looking for the perfect bag of oranges. So, you’re going to use the clues you pick up on the store signs to pick your best bet. A produce store is a better match than a convenience store, which is a better match than a clothing store which for some reason says oranges on their sign (perhaps it’s the color of their Fall line). Your goal is to pick up the best oranges in the least amount of time. The process you would use to narrow your store selection is similar to the one you use every day with a search engine.

Now, let’s look at the part brand plays in this same analogy. You’re looking for oranges, but you’re using related concepts to help you narrow down your choice. A store that appears to offer a variety of fruits has stronger scent. A store that has a sale on oranges today might offer even stronger scent. And a store that offers Sunkist oranges might offer even stronger scent, if you happen to like the Sunkist brand.

Brand Connections, Not Emotions

That’s the role brand plays on the search results page. It’s a critical role, but it’s significantly different than the brand-building role many are trying to carve out for search. Search doesn’t build brand, search connects people to brands at just the right time.

Brands work because they represent something. In fact, studies show that successful brands actually act as a proxy for reward in the brain. They fire the same dopamine-producing neurons in the reward center that the actual product would, if you possessed it. The brain transfers the pleasure of the product to the brand, where it acts as a convenient label. If you have a favorable opinion of a brand and you see that brand in the search results, your working memory pulls that brand belief out of storage and brings it into focus in the prefrontal cortex.

But, as we’ve learned, brands become powerful influencers if they’re tagged with the power of emotion. That’s classic brand-building. As I’ve gone over at length in this series, there are a number of ways those brand beliefs can be built, including personal experience, the opinions of others and yes, even advertising. But I stand by my belief that emotional brand-building doesn’t happen on the search page. The nature of the interaction simply isn’t conducive to it. This does nothing to negate the importance of brand on the search page, as I’ll talk about in future columns. In fact, the appearance of brand on the results page is critical. But an emotional brand bonding moment it’s not.

So, with my own company responsible for a number of search brand lift studies, am I refuting my own evidence? Not at all. It just requires a clearer definition of brand lift and a little knowledge of the ways we measure it. I’ll deal with both next week.

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.

The Elusive Goal of Ad Engagement

First published October 16, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I talked about the nature of engagement and the neural mechanisms that underlie it. This week, I want to explore why those same mechanisms dictate that our search interactions are going to be completely different from engagement with a TV ad or a billboard.

The key thing to understand here is how we’re driven by goals. In a drastic oversimplification, goals are the objectives that drive our information processing modules, more commonly known as our brain. Our “mind” and all that we know about ourselves are shifting patterns of information being processed in these modules. At multiple levels, we sift through data, make decisions and initiate actions to get us closer to our goals.

Goal Interrupted

Most advertising is interruptive. It’s a detour on the road to our goals. The holy grail of direct marketing is to time delivery of the message so that it coincides with our pursuit of a goal. If you can get a realtor brochure to my doorstep at exactly the time I’m thinking of putting my house up for sale, you’ve substantially increased the odds of active engagement with your advertising message. But despite the advances in targeting methods, the odds of perfect coincidence are frustratingly slim. So advertising has to depend on other methods, like emotion, to trigger primal reactions and force suspension of current goal pursuit to engage with the message.

One of the comments on last week’s column, by fellow Search Insider Kaila Colbin, provides a perfect example of this. Kaila provided a link to a particularly powerful use of emotion in a TV ad from New Zealand Post. Now, despite the powerful emotional appeal, in a typical stream of ads inserted in a commercial block in network programming, the ad would still need to batter our way into our consciousness. With Kaila it succeeded once, hitting all the right emotional cues, and so her subconscious has been primed to respond to this ad should it appear on the radar screen of her constant scanning of her environment. In Kaila’s case, she would rush to the TV to change the channel, preventing her from dissolving into a messy puddle of tears.

Active Engagement

But by drawing our attention to the link, Kaila set up a totally different nature of engagement. She embedded the concept in our working memory by allowing us to create a goal around the viewing of the ad. We were engaged with the concept on a totally different level. Watching the ad was the goal, so no diversion of attention was required. We were primed to pay attention by Kaila’s recommendation. This is the power of ads that go viral in social networks, like Dove’s Evolution.

This concept of attention is at the center of two targeting tactics that have proven effective in the online environment: behavioral and contextual targeting.

Engaging Tactics

With behavioral targeting, we track behavioral cues through clickstreams, hoping that it will improve our odds of presenting our advertising message at exactly the right time to coincide with our target’s pursuit of a goal. The well-timed presentation of an ad for Chinese hotel rooms at almost the same time I was planning a trip to China was an example I’ve talked about before. Because planning for the trip had recently occupied my working memory and presumably I hadn’t yet reached my goal (the trip wasn’t completely planned yet), this message stood a pretty good chance of being engaged with (despite the fact that it creeped me out a little).

Contextual targeting employs a different but related strategy. If advertising messages are about the same topics as the content that I’m engaging with, transference of that engagement should be easier than with unrelated topics. Indeed, at Enquiro we’ve found that engagement with these ads actually occurs at two levels. There’s the initial awareness of the ad and the subsequent decision to engage with the ad. We’ve found that awareness is often higher with non-contextually targeted ads, but engagement and recall is higher with contextual ads. I have my theories about why this is so (having to do with the nature of the creative and the interplay of active consciousness and selective perception) but that could fill up an entire column in itself.

Engaging Search

Finally, we have search. In my previous examples of online targeting, we’re still using our best guess about optimum timing based on some pretty broad assumptions: click streams provide an accurate measure of intent, and interest in content means interest in related advertising messages. These targeting methods simply improve the odds in what is still essentially an interruption in the pursuit of a goal. But use of search is inherently aligned with goal pursuit. Information gathering is a key subtask in the pursuit of many goals, and search is an important tool in our information foraging arsenal. The goal is firmly embedded in our working memory and we’re on high alert for cues relevant to our end goal. This is why information scent in search results is so critical. No diversion of attention is required. Our attention is firmly focused on the results presented on the search page (both paid and algorithmic), because we believe that one of those results will take us one step closer to the goal.

This concept of active engagement is key to understanding search’s role in branding. Next week, I’ll look at how our cognitive mechanisms digest the results on a search page.