Disruption in the Rear View Mirror

Oh..it’s so easy to be blasé. I always scan the Mediapost headlines each week to see if there’s anything to spin. I almost skipped right past a news post by Larissa Faw – Zenith: Google Remains Top-Ranked Media Company By Ad Revenue

“Of course Google is the top ranked media company,” I yawned as I was just about to click on the next email in my inbox. Then it hit me. To quote Michael Bublé, “Holy Shitballs, Mom!”

Maybe that headline doesn’t seem extraordinary in the context of today, but I’ve been doing this stuff for almost 20 years now, and in that context – well-it’s huge! I remembered a column I wrote ages ago about speculating that Google had barely scratched its potential. After a little digging, I found it. It was in October, 2006, so just over a decade ago. Google had just passed the 6 billion dollar mark in annual revenue. Ironically, that seemed a bigger deal then their current revenue of almost $80 billion seems today. In that column, I pushed to the extreme and speculated that Google could someday pass $200 billion in revenue. While we’re still only 1/3 of the way there, the claim doesn’t seem nearly as ludicrous as it did back then.

But here’s the line that really made me realize how far we’ve come in the ten and a half years since I wrote that column: “Google and Facebook together accounted for 20% of global advertising expenditure across all media in 2016, up from 11% in 2012. They were also responsible for 64% of all the growth in global ad spend between 2012 and 2016.”

Two companies that didn’t exist 20 years ago now account for 20% of all global advertising expenditure. And the speed with which they’re gobbling advertising budgets is accelerating. If you’re a dilettante student of disruption, as I am, those are pretty amazing numbers. In the day-to-day of Mediapost – and digital marketing in general – we tend to accept all this as normal. It’s like we’re surfing on top of a wave without realizing the wave is 300 freakin’ feet high. Sometimes, you need to zoom out a little to realizing how momentous the every day is. And if you look at this on a scale of decades rather than days, you start to get a sense that the speed of change is massive.

To me, the most interesting thing about this is that both Google and Facebook have introduced a fundamentally new relationship between advertising and it’s audience. Google’s outré is – of course – intent based advertising. And Facebook’s is based on socially mediated network effects. Both of these things required the overlay of digital connection. That – as they say – has made all the difference. And there is where the real disruption can be found. Our world has become a fundamentally different place.

Much as we remain focused on the world of advertising and marketing here in our little corner of the digital world, it behooves us to remember that advertising is simply a somewhat distorted reflection of the behaviors of the world in general. It things are being disrupted here, it is because things are being disrupted everywhere. As it regards us beings of flesh, bone and blood, that disruption has three distinct beachheads: the complicated relationship between our brains and the digital tools we have at our disposal, the way we connect with each other, and a dismantling of the restrictions of the physical world at the same time we build the scaffolding of a human designed digital world. Any one of these has the potential to change our species forever. With all three bearing down on us, permanent change is a lead-pipe cinch.

Thirty years is a nano-second in terms of human history. Even on the scale of my lifetime, it seems like yesterday. Reagan was president. We were terrorized by the Unabomber. News outlets were covering the Iran-Contra affair. U2 released the Joshua Tree. Platoon won the best picture Oscar. And if you wanted to advertise to a lot of people, you did so on a major TV network with the help of a Madison Avenue agency. 30 years ago, nothing of which I’m talking about existed. Nothing. No Google. No Facebook. No Internet – at least, not in a form any of us could appreciate.

As much as advertising has changed in the past 30 years, it has only done so because we – and the world we inhabit – have changed even more. And if that thought is a little scary, just think what the next 30 years might bring.

Farewell Search Insider. It’s Been Fun!

Note: This is my farewell column for MediaPost’s Search Insider.

476.

What’s significant about that number? Well, it’s a Harshad number. Math geeks can learn more here. For history buffs, it’s also the year in the Julian calendar when we switched from the Julian to the Anno Domini calendar. Generally, it’s when most historians say the Roman Empire fell and we went from ancient history to the Middle Ages.

It also happens to be the number of Search Insider columns I’ve written since my first appearance here 10 and a half years ago.

It’s been a good run. I’ve had fun. I’ve ranted the odd time. I’ve taken you with me on my family vacations. Most of all, I’ve had a ringside seat at the emergence of a true industry. In fact, that’s what my very first column was about – Search growing beyond the confines of a cottage industry into a real contender for ad budgets. Here’s how I ended that column:

Search will become much more sophisticated, and the price of entry to play the game may prove to be too expensive for many smaller providers. Alliances will form and total solutions will begin to emerge. Google and Yahoo! will have to address the huge amount of time and effort required to manage a large, sponsored search campaign. Real money will start to be invested and made.

And to think, one day I’ll be able to say I was there.

Well, I guess that day has arrived. In the next 5 years, according to Forrester, digital will surpass TV as the single biggest destination for marketing budgets and search will make up the lion’s share of that spend. Digital budgets combined are forecast to top $100 billion. I think that qualifies as “real money.”

But regular readers will also know that over the past 10 plus years, my columns have spent less and less time inside the “Search Insider” box. I’ve talked before about the artificiality of the way we’ve divided online up into channels. As our digital world has become richer and more robust, it’s become increasingly difficult to keep it compartmentalized into arbitrarily defined boxes. My personal interest has always centered on human behaviors and the rapidly growing intersection between behavior and technology. Search is part of that, but so is social and mobile and content and rich media and wearable technology and – well – you get the idea. Digital is a deeply and widely interwoven part of our lives. It makes up much of the context of our environment. Trying to talk only about one part of it would be like trying to describe the world by only writing about water.

At the end of 2014 (AD – just to keep our calendar references consistent), Ken Fadner, the publisher of MediaPost, asked me if I’d consider a move. I said yes. So this column – number 476 – will be my last one for the Search Insider. Starting next week, I’ll join the Online Spin lineup. It’s probably more appropriate. I haven’t been active in search marketing for the last 2 years. I’m hardly an “Insider” any more. I am, at best, a somewhat informed observer commenting from the sidelines. I think that can still be a useful perspective. I hope so. I will continue to write about the things that interest me: corporate strategy, human behavior, evolving cultures, digital technology – and yes, the odd rant.

So, for those of you who have been along for the ride for the last 10 and a half years, thanks for sticking around. When this ride started, there was no Facebook, no iPhone, no YouTube, no Twitter – and Google was just starting to figure out how to make some real money.

We’ve come a long way. But I suspect we’ve barely started. Maybe we’re even transitioning from one era to another. After all, it’s happened before when we’ve hit the number 476.

See you next Tuesday at Online Spin.

Evolved Search Behaviors: Take Aways for Marketers

In the last two columns, I first looked at the origins of the original Golden Triangle, and then looked at how search behaviors have evolved in the last 9 years, according to a new eye tracking study from Mediative. In today’s column, I’ll try to pick out a few “so whats” for search marketers.

It’s not about Location, It’s About Intent

In 2005, search marketing as all about location. It was about grabbing a part of the Golden Triangle, and the higher, the better. The delta between scanning and clicks from the first organic result to the second was dramatic – by a factor of 2 to 1! Similar differences were seen in the top paid results. It’s as if, given the number of options available on the page (usually between 12 and 18, depending on the number of ads showing) searchers used position as a quick and dirty way to filter results, reasoning that the higher the result, the better match it would be to their intent.

In 2014, however, it’s a very different story. Because the first scan is now to find the most appropriate chunk, the importance of being high on the page is significantly lessened. Also, once the second step of scanning has begun, within a results chunk, there seems to be more vertical scanning within the chunk and less lateral scanning. Mediative found that in some instances, it was the third or fourth listing in a chunk that attracted the most attention, depending on content, format and user intent. For example, in the heat map shown below, the third organic result actually got as many clicks as the first, capturing 26% of all the clicks on the page and 15% of the time spent on page. The reason could be because it was the only listing that had the Google Ratings Rich Snippet because of the proper use of structured data mark up. In this case, the information scent that promised user reviews was a strong match with user intent, but you would only know this if you knew what that intent was.

Google-Ford-Fiesta

This change in user search scanning strategies makes it more important than ever to understand the most common user intents that would make them turn to a search engine. What will be the decision steps they go through and at which of those steps might they turn to a search engine? Would it be to discover a solution to an identified need, to find out more about a known solution, to help build a consideration set for direct comparisons, to look for one specific piece of information (ie a price) or to navigate to one particular destination, perhaps to order online? If you know why your prospects might use search, you’ll have a much better idea of what you need to do with your content to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time with the right content.  Nothing shows this clearer than the following comparison of heat maps. The one on the left was the heat map produced when searchers were given a scenario that required them to gather information. The one on the right resulted from a scenario where searchers had to find a site to navigate to. You can see the dramatic difference in scanning behaviors.

Intent-compared-2

If search used to be about location, location, location, it’s now about intent, intent, intent.

Organic Optimization Matters More than Ever!

Search marketers have been saying that organic optimization has been dying for at least two decades now, ever since I got into this industry. Guess what? Not only is organic optimization not dead, it’s now more important than ever! In Enquiro’s original 2005 study, the top two sponsored ads captured 14.1% of all clicks. In Mediative’s 2014 follow up, the number really didn’t change that much, edging up to 14.5% What did change was the relevance of the rest of the listings on the page. In 2005, all the organic results combined captured 56.7% of the clicks. That left about 29% of the users either going to the second page of results, launching a new search or clicking on one of the side sponsored ads (this only accounted for small fraction of the clicks). In 2014, the organic results, including all the different category “chunks,” captured 74.6% of the remaining clicks. This leaves only 11% either clicking on the side ads (again, a tiny percentage) or either going to the second page or launching a new search. That means that Google has upped their first page success rate to an impressive 90%.

First of all, that means you really need to break onto the first page of results to gain any visibility at all. If you can’t do it organically, make sure you pay for presence. But secondly, it means that of all the clicks on the page, some type of organic result is capturing 84% of them. The trick is to know which type of organic result will capture the click – and to do that you need to know the user’s intent (see above). But you also need to optimize across your entire content portfolio. With my own blog, two of the biggest traffic referrers happen to be image searches.

Left Gets to Lead

The Left side of the results page has always been important but the evolution of scanning behaviors now makes it vital. The heat map below shows just how important it is to seed the left hand of results with information scent.

Googlelefthand

Last week, I talked about how the categorization of results had caused us to adopt a two stage scanning strategy, the first to determine which “chunks” of result categories are the best match to intent, and the second to evaluated the listings in the most relevant chunks. The vertical scan down the left hand of the page is where we decide which “chunks” of results are the most promising. And, in the second scan, because of the improved relevancy, we often make the decision to click without a lot of horizontal scanning to qualify our choice. Remember, we’re only spending a little over a second scanning the result before we click. This is just enough to pick up the barest whiffs of information scent, and almost all of the scent comes from the left side of the listing. Look at the three choices above that captured the majority of scanning and clicks. The search was for “home decor store toronto.” The first popular result was a local result for the well known brand Crate and Barrel. This reinforces how important brands can be if they show up on the left side of the result set. The second popular result was a website listing for another well known brand – The Pottery Barn. The third was a link to Yelp – a directory site that offered a choice of options. In all cases, the scent found in the far left of the result was enough to capture a click. There was almost no lateral scanning to the right. When crafting titles, snippets and metadata, make sure you stack information scent to the left.

In the end, there are no magic bullets from this latest glimpse into search behaviors. It still comes down to the five foundational planks that have always underpinned good search marketing:

  1. Understand your user’s intent
  2. Provide a rich portfolio of content and functionality aligned with those intents
  3. Ensure your content appears at or near the top of search results, either through organic optimization or well run search campaigns
  4. Provide relevant information scent to capture clicks
  5. Make sure you deliver on what you promise post-click

Sure, the game is a little more complex than it was 9 years ago, but the rules haven’t changed.

Search: The Boon or Bane of B2B Marketers

First published February 21, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Optify recently released its 2012 B2B marketing Benchmark Report. While reading the executive summary, two apparently conflicting points jumped out at me: “Google is the single most important referring domain to B2B websites, responsible for over 36% of all visits.”

And: “Paid search usage showed a constant decline among B2B marketers in 2012. Over 10% of companies in the report discontinued their paid search campaigns during 2012.”

OK, what gives? How can search be the single most important referrer of traffic, yet fail so miserably as a marketing channel that many B2B marketers have thrown in the towel?

The fact is, B2B search is a dramatically different beast, and many of the unique nuances that come with it are likely to lead to the apparent paradox that the Optify study unearthed. Here are some possible reasons for the anomaly:

B2B search has a really, really long tail. Many B2B marketers are dealing with a huge variety of SKUs, with a broader distribution of traffic across keywords than is typical in most consumer categories. This makes keyword discovery a monumental task. But more than this, the revenue per managed keyword (assuming you can accurately measure revenue — more on this below) is quite often very small. This creates a cost-of-campaign management issue.

When the “long tail” of search was first introduced, many search marketers embraced it as a cost-effective way to manage campaigns. The assumption was that long-tail queries, being quite specific, would yield higher ROI than shorter, more generic queries. And while the traffic (and subsequent revenue) per keyword would be very small, cumulatively a long-tail campaign could deliver impressive returns.

This is true, up to a point. But long-tail campaigns require significant administrative overhead. A query that gets one search a month requires as much set-up as one that gets 1,500 searches a month. Even if you use broad match, you’re constantly tweaking your negative match list to filter out the low-value traffic.

While a long-tail approach seems like a good idea in theory, in practice most marketers end up culling most of the long-tail keywords from the campaign because the returns just aren’t worth the ongoing effort.  This would not bode well for B2B marketers considering search as a channel.

A B2B search vocabulary is difficult to define. Compounding the long-tail problem is the issue that many B2B vendors sell complex products or services. With complexity comes ambiguity in language. It’s hard to pin many B2B products down to an obvious search phrase you can be sure searchers would use. Often, many B2B prospects only know they have a problem, not what the possible solution might be called. This makes it very difficult to create an effective search campaign. There is a lot of trial and error involved.

And, because prospects aren’t searching for a familiar product from vendors they know, it becomes even more difficult to create a compelling search ad that attracts its fair share of searches and subsequent conversions. In a marketing channel that depends on words to interpret buying intent, ill-defined vocabularies can make a marketer’s job exponentially more difficult.

B2B ROI has to be measured differently. Finally, let’s say you get past the first two obstacles. Ultimately, search campaigns live and die on their effectiveness. And this requires a comprehensive approach to performance measurement. As any B2B marketer will tell you, this is much easier said than done. B2B markets tend to be more circuitous than consumer markets, winding their way through several stops in an extended value change. This makes end-to-end tracking extremely difficult.  And if value isn’t easily measured, search campaigns can’t prove their value. This makes them likely candidates for an unceremonious axing.

So if That’s the Bad News, What’s the Good?

If the deck is stacked so fully against search in the B2B world, why was Google the primary referrer of traffic in the Optify study? Well, search for B2B can be tremendously effective; it’s just hard to predict. This makes B2B a prime candidate for a broad-based SEO effort. Content creation creates a rich bed of long-tail fodder that search spiders love. Organic best practices combined with a dedication to thought leadership can create content that intercepts those prospects looking for a solution to their identified pains, even before they know what they’re looking for.

In the case of B2B, especially in complex, nascent markets, I generally recommend leading with SEO and content development. Then, monitor search traffic and let that help inform your subsequent PPC efforts. It may turn out that paid search isn’t a major play for your market. The B2B Beast can be tamed by search; it just takes a different approach.

The Tricky Intersection of Social and Search

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Search and the Age of “Usefulness”

First published April 19, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled over the recent changes to Google’s algorithm and what it means for the SEO industry. This is not the first time the death knell has been rung for SEO. It seems to have more lives than your average barnyard cat. But there’s no doubt that Google’s recent changes throws a rather large wrench in the industry as a whole. In my view, that’s a good thing.

First of all, from the perspective of the user, Google’s changes mark an evolution of search beyond a tool used to search for information to one used by us to do the things we want to do. It’s moving from using relevance as the sole measure of success to incorporating usefulness.

The algorithm is changing to keep pace with the changes in the Web as a whole. No longer is it just the world’s biggest repository of text-based information; it’s now a living, interactive, functional network of apps, data and information, extending our capabilities through a variety of connected devices.

Google had to introduce these back-end changes. Not to do so would have guaranteed the company would have soon become irrelevant in the online world.

As Google succeeds in consistently interpreting more and more signals of user intent, it can become more confident in presenting a differentiated user experience. It can serve a different type of results set to a query that’s obviously initiated by someone looking for information than it does to the user who’s looking to do something online.

We’ve been talking about the death of the monolithic set of search results for years now. In truth, it never died; it just faded away, pixel by pixel. The change has been gradual, but for the first time in several years of observing search, I can truthfully say that my search experience (whether on Google, Bing or the other competitors) looks significantly different today than it did three years ago.

As search changes, so do the expectations of users. And that affects the “use case” of search. In its previous incarnation, we accepted that search was one of a number of necessary intermediate steps between our intent and our ultimate action. If we wanted to do something, we accepted the fact that we would search for information, find the information, evaluate the information and then, eventually, take the information and do something with it. The limitations of the Web forced us to take several steps to get us where we wanted to go.

But now, as we can do more of what we want to online, the steps are being eliminated. Information and functionality are often seamlessly integrated in a single destination. So we have less patience with seemingly superfluous steps between us and our destination. That includes search.

Soon, we will no longer be content with considering the search results page as a sort of index to online content. We will want the functionality we know exists served to us via the shortest possible path. We see this beginning as answers to common information requests are pushed to the top of the search results page.

What this does, in terms of user experience, is make the transition from search page to destination more critical than ever. As long as search was a reference index, the user expected to bounce back and forth between potential destinations, deciding which was the best match. But as search gets better at unearthing useful destinations, our “post-click” expectations will rise accordingly.  Whatever lies on the other side of that search click better be good. The changes in Google’s algorithm are the first step (of several yet to come) to ensure that it is.

What this does for SEO specialists is to suddenly push them toward considering a much bigger picture than they previously had to worry about. They have to think in terms of a search user’s unique intent and expectations. They have to understand the importance of the transition from a search page to a landing page and the functionality that has to offer. And, most of all, they have to counsel their clients on the increasing importance of “usefulness” — and how potential customers will use online to seek and connect to that usefulness.  If the SEO community can transition to that role, there will always be a need for them.

The SEO industry and the Google search quality team have been playing a game of cat and mouse for several years now. It’s been more “hacking” than “marketing” as SEO practitioners prod for loopholes in the Google algorithm. All too often, a top ranking was the end goal, with no thought to what that actually meant for true connections with prospects.

In my mind, if that changes, it’s perhaps the best thing to ever happen in the SEO business.

Reinventing AIDA

First published April 5, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, my column was about how branding differs between search and more traditional brand channels like TV and print. It came from a recent client conversation I had. Rob Schmults from Intent Media added a well-thought-out, on-the-mark comment that deserves a follow-up. There are three points in particular I want to dive deeper into.

“ I think part of the problem in attempting to do so is that branding is all too often an end in and of itself rather than a means.”

Absolutely. Most sales and marketing happens in dozens of disconnected siloes, with little thought about how the actions of one silo affect all the others. Each silo measures progress by its own metric and set its own agenda. The problem is that all these different initiatives are aimed at the same target, but there is little thought as to how each initiative can impact the prospect.

For the past year, I’ve been thinking about how to approach marketing by starting first with creating a common understanding of the buyer’s motivations and behaviors, and then mapping a decision landscape so we can begin to understand the path the buyer takes through it. Much of my writing over the past two years has explored various aspects of this landscape: things like the role of risk and reward, and how they affect the emotions drive our buying decisions.

If branding becomes disconnected and “an end in and of itself,” it starts to lose touch with the chain of “means” that translates brand awareness into action. I saw a particularly acute example of this in a recent meeting: a brand agency presented research showing each point of movement in its unaided brand awareness metric translated into X of additional revenue. I didn’t dispute the finding, as I believed it to be true. What was missing was the long chain of interdependent “means” taking us from there to here. It was like saying that each inch of rain translated into X increase of revenue at the local farmer’s market. We’re jumping from “A” to “Z” without worrying about the 24 intervening letters.

“SEM is clearly a means — it’s a step to driving a conversion event (typically a sale).”

As I mentioned last week, presence on the search page is very often a critical intermediate step between the lofty heights of brand-building and the nitty-gritty of bringing cash in the door. In fact, if you take the time to understand how search is typically used in the purchase process with your typical buyer, it typically falls into the “no-brainer” category, because the prospect has intent and is completely open to being persuaded. Which brings me to Rob’s next point:

“Branding has value, so the war Gordon describes doesn’t have to end with total victory and branding’s extinction.”

As effective as search is, it’s a channel with built-in limitations, including available inventory. If there is no awareness, there is no inventory. People can’t search for something they don’t know exists (at least, not yet). Branding creates awareness, which, if the dots are connected properly, eventually turns into intent. And when intent is present, search is very effective at converting that intent into action. The chain then is Awareness – Intent – Action, which is a variation on the venerable AIDA branding model: Attention – Interest – Desire – Action. If you combine the two you end up with Awareness – Interest – Desire – Intent – Action, or AIDIA. You need branding at the front end, to create awareness, spark interest and create desire. You need search at the back end to allow prospects to act on their intent and discover how to take action.

It’s interesting to note that the original AIDA model jumped all the way from desire to action without much explanation on how to get there. Given that two of the steps –“interest” and “desire” — seem pretty similar, it’s odd that there is such a huge chasm between the domain of branding and the ultimate transaction itself. The AIDA model was definitely biased towards the front end of the marketing process.

I think what digital has done, especially through search, is to provide much more granularity and clarity on the many steps you can take to get from desire to action. But, as Mr. Schmults reminds us, none of these steps is “an end unto itself.” They’re part of a journey. They depend on each other. And each is passed through by your prospects as they travel down the path of purchase.

To come full circle, that was my original point. I’m not calling for the abolition of branding. I’m just asking that we take the time to understand the journey our customers take, and be there at each step.