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.

Google: Bad Behavior?

It seems that every time I’m getting ready to go on a family holiday, Google decides to up the game with personalization. Two years ago on the cusp of a spring getaway they announced default opt ins for search and web history. This time, they’re siddling up to behavioral targeting, courtesy of that same personal information. In the process, they’ve recanted much of what they’ve said about behavioral targeting over the past 2 years. I have always said that of course Google was going to go down the behavioral targeting road. Why else would they be collecting the data? The official line of making your search experience better didn’t hold much water.

I’m torn on the whole question of behavioral targeting. As a marketer, I appreciate the potential. BT was the tactic that marketers were most interested in according to the latest SEMPO Search Market Survey. But as a user, I’m profoundly disappointed in Google’s tip toeing around the issue. I think it shows a more fundamental issue at the heart of Google’s culture, which has been rearing it’s head more often as of late.

The disastrous economy has created a split personality within Google.It seems that Google, once the brash, idealistic young university student out to change the world is now being severely schooled in the more pragmatic ways of that world. Google is growing up, and I’m not sure we’ll like what it turns into. It’s double talking, pulling the bait and switch, sacrificing ideals for cash and sometimes outright lying. In short, it’s becoming just like every other company in the world. The company John Battelle wrote about in The Search is rapidly disappearing. In it’s place is an online juggernaut that seems intent on keeping advertisers happy. The one thing that always set Google apart was it’s respect for the user. If you read the official Google press release on this, the carrot for the user is more relevant ads. Okay,that’s a stretch of epic proportions. You’re tracking everything I do, based on a promise to make my search experience more useful. You know what? My search experience hasn’t changed too much in the last 2 years. I haven’t noticed a huge increase in relevancy. But now you’re using the information I volunteered, giving it to marketers so they can serve me more ads? That wasn’t part of the original bargain Google. You violated my trust. And you did it to keep more revenue rolling in.

Behavioral targeting of ads was inevitable. Everyone knew Google was going there. So why were they so righteous (and so dismissive of other BT providers) in saying that it just wasn’t a targeting approach they were going to take? Not cool, Google, not cool.

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.

Hello, My Name is Gord and I’ve Been Behaviorally Targeted

First published April 12, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I was forcefully fit into the proverbial “other shoes” last week, and it was a disconcerting experience. I was behaviorally targeted in an unmistakable way, and I had to come to personal terms with the new reality of marketing.

I’ve written about behavioral targeting a number of times in the past, but always from a marketer’s perspective. From that viewpoint, there’s a lot I like about behavioral targeting. But last week, the crosshairs drew a bead on my forehead and I became the hunted, not the hunter.

I’m not naïve. I know I’ve been targeted before, but this was the first time that it was obvious enough to register on my consciousness. And I have to tell you, I’m having mixed feelings about it.

Leaving Footprints and Collecting Cookies

In the past two weeks, I’ve been making my travel plans to head to China for SES in May. I’ve been merrily hopscotching around the Web, booking flights, checking hotels and frequenting the typical online travel haunts: Expedia, Orbitz and TripAdvisor. All the time, these sites were jamming my browser with cookies galore. As I went on my way in blissful ignorance, I was definitely leaving a trail (I’m picturing virtual droppings, probably from too many cookies) that obviously caught one advertiser’s attention. Late last week, I went to About.com on a totally unrelated quest (the topic of which escapes me at this time), and there in the top bar was an ad urging me to book my hotel in Xiamen in the next three days on Orbitz or miss out on a $25 discount.

Now, Xiamen obviously caught my attention. It’s just not a destination you see all that often in the typical display ad on a Web site — not Paris, or London, or even Beijing, all of which I might just have chalked up to coincidence. But it does happen to be where SES China is taking place, and  where I’ll be spending three or three days in May. And I haven’t booked my hotel yet. So from a targeting perspective, I had a red laser dot on my forehead. Well done, Orbitz!

Is Ignorance Bliss?

I don’t consider myself a neophyte when it comes to online marketing. I obviously knew what was going on. I understood the mechanics behind it. But this was the first time that it was obvious that I was being targeted, and I’ve got to tell you, it creeped me out a little.

Now, I’m not sure if my level of sophistication here, such as it is, was a good thing or not. Would the average user, less aware of the inner workings of behavior targeting, be more apprehensive or less so? Would they just say, “Wow, how did Orbitz know?” or would they quickly wrap their monitor in tinfoil, certain that there was some unhealthy spying going on, either by aliens or the government?  I’m not sure, but I know that losing my BT virginity has left me feeling a little queasy.

Did Orbitz Bag Its Prey?

So, the collective marketing audience is wondering, did Orbitz succeed in getting my booking? Well, yes, and no. The ad certainly caught my attention. In fact, it totally derailed my train of thought, which could be why I forget why I went to About.com in the first place. But I didn’t book — at least, not yet. I’m still sorting out whether I want to or not. It’s really strange. Intellectually I have totally accepted behavioral targeting and even welcome it as an advertiser, but emotionally and as a prospect, I’m still not sure. I had no idea I would be so prudish about this until it actually happened. I admire Orbitz’ marketing prowess, but I do feel a little violated. Maybe it will just take some getting used to. Until then, I’m sniffing the wind when I frequent my online watering holes and being a little more cautious about the trail I’m leaving behind. After all, you can’t be too careful nowadays. The trees have eyes and ears.


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?

Tivo Now in the Search Game

This just in: Tivo is going to let viewers search for the advertising content they’re interested in!

Brilliant! Imagine, letting consumers chose to look for product information when they’re actually interested in it. I think this has far reaching implications. Imagine if we could do something similar with websites..some sort of thing where we could search through all the content on the web so if there was a product we were interested in, we could find the right site. We could call it a…search engine!

But seriously, there is one quote from the story that reinforces everything I’ve been saying about search:

Users will be able to search through ad and product information spots ranging in length from 1 to 60 minutes from five different ad categories like finance, travel, and lifestyle.

See the word “search”? That’s the key. Consumer control absolutely requires search. Whether video search is done through Tivo or a search engine (and search engines will win this battle) the act of searching is the important thing. It’s that simple, fundamental concept that will power the entire future of marketing. It’s the connection that makes everything else possible.

Another interesting tidbit was the major brands jumping on this “brand”wagon. It was probably an easy sell, unlike search branding has been. But then, search isn’t nearly as sexy as being able to tap into a new generation of ad zappers.