There is No Floor on Search Spending

First published March 29, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I was asked an interesting question by a client the other day:  “What is the minimum spending threshold for paid search? Below what level does it not make sense to invest anything?”

A little context is in order here. This same client had been through a vigorous round of budget discussions, where the digital and branding teams were fighting for the same bucket of dollars. They were trying, with almost no success, to compare effectiveness of digital and branding on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The brand team’s tactic was that they couldn’t give up any budget because they were already at minimum spending levels. Even a dollar less would drop them below the level required to hit the reach/frequency minimums dictated by the agency handling the media buys.

The answer, of course, is that there is no minimum when it comes to paid search. Each click you buy generates a potential lead. But the reasoning behind that answer speaks to the unique nature of search, when compared to traditional brand-building channels.

Online Branding is a Different Beast

Search vendors have been trying to prove the brand-building effects of search for years now. I’ve been personally involved in some of the earliest of these studies. And I’m here to tell you, branding is much different in an online environment than it is in the traditional worlds of print and electronic media.

When you use research to create a direct comparison between two different alternatives, you have to control for variables. If you don’t, the results are meaningless. If you’re trying to measure the brand lift of search, you have to use traditional brand awareness metrics — which, as I said, have significant methodological challenges.

The biggest challenge, identified by more sophisticated research approaches such as neuroscanning, is that most market research doesn’t really take into account how the brain works. And it’s here where the brand impact of search really can leave its more traditional counterparts in the dust.

The brain can interact with potential marketing messages in two different modes – a “bottom up” mode or a “top down” mode. The “bottom up” mode is how most traditional advertising works. It interrupts the brain, whatever it’s engaged with, and temporarily sidetracks the brain long enough to hopefully leave a “brand imprint” that will stick in long-term memory. Often, this is done at a subconscious level.

And therein lies the problem with most brand-awareness metrics. By their very nature, they have to engage the conscious brain and suddenly you’ve muddied the mental waters to such an extent that it’s almost impossible to get a true picture of the impression the brand left. Traditional brand impact research is a crapshoot, at best.

It’s this subconscious impact that has created the “minimum buy” hypothesis. If you don’t hit a potential target with enough impressions to make even a slight ding in their mental armor, you have wasted your entire budget. It’s the “Chinese water torture” approach to advertising.

But search engages the brain in a “top down” mode. We’re actively engaged with the task at hand, which means that no interruption is required to implant the brand impression. It’s immediately loaded into working memory, and we’re ready to act on it. That’s why there is no such thing as a minimum search spend. Each click bought has the potential to work, because there are no mental barriers to break down or attention to grab.

Sometimes the Truth Hurts

Ironically, in this particular budget discussion, the effectiveness of search turned out to be its downfall. We didn’t have the same “minimum spend” argument as the branding agency when it came to moving ad dollars from one budget to the other. But, when the dust settled, I took some solace in knowing that while we may have lost the battle, the effectiveness of search will eventually prove triumphant in the war.

The Challenge of Social

First published December 1, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Every quarter, I fill out an online survey about digital marketing trends. One question always shows up: “Are you looking at social as a replacement for search in your online marketing strategy?” I always answer no, and to myself, comment that it’s a stupid question asked by someone who obviously doesn’t know much about online marketing. But now I wonder  — is it really such a stupid question? Aren’t many experienced marketers asking themselves exactly the same question?

The Social Graph (or Network, or whatever you want to call it) should be the single biggest opportunity in marketing history. But marketers are stubbing their toes by the millions in trying to step over the threshold into the golden glow of the online social party. It seems it’s incredibly difficult to figure out.

Search, on the other hand, was easily pigeonholed as a direct-marketing channel. Search was so easy to “get” for marketers that Google turned it into a self-serve model and became the fastest growing company in history as a result.

For marketers, I suspect, the very ease of search has caused it to be considered a limited opportunity. Social, on the other hand, seems virtually limitless. It expands into hundreds and thousands of fascinating, if somewhat cloudy, opportunities to connect with customers. As I said, in theory, social seems like a marketer’s dream come true. But in practice, it’s an unwieldy animal to wrestle to the ground.

Here’s just one example of the challenges inherent in mapping the online social landscape.  Pitney Bowes felt there was tremendous potential in social to foster deeper engagements with its customers, building long-term loyalty. But rather than jump headlong into it, Pitney Bowes decided to test its assumptions through a survey of those customers first. The result? Social may not be all it’s cracked up to be:

“These findings will give decision-makers pause for thought,” the report (from the survey) stated. “Businesses can be forgiven for getting swept away by the hype of surrounding social media and wanting to invest in such activity as soon as possible. … But results show that those businesses tempted to lead with such techniques will quickly find themselves out of step with customer thinking.”

So why is social so awkward to leverage effectively? I suspect it’s because the exact same things that make social so promising also make it incredibly unwieldy to manage.  It’s part of our lives, which means we’re engaged, but what we’re engaged with is rarely what an advertiser wants to talk to us about.

Marketers get caught up in the concept of participation rates and usage. Facebook has one of the highest reaches of any online property, second only to Google. Alexa estimates that almost half of the total Internet user population (about 49%) uses Google regularly. Facebook is just behind at 43%. But if we look at time spent on site, Facebook comes it an about 25 minutes a day, compared to 13 minutes a day for Google. If we were using engagement as an indicator of marketing potential, this would have us salivating like a St. Bernard over a fresh bowl of kibble.

But the reason I don’t trust engagement as a metric is that it doesn’t consider intent. And intent is the key difference between social and search. The reason search excels in marketing is that it’s all about intent, and what’s even better, it’s about identified intent, neatly labeled by the search query. In the history of marketing, it’s never been easier than this to intercept a motivated buyer.

I don’t mean to minimize the value of a well-managed search campaign, but compared to other channels, it’s pretty difficult to completely flop on a search campaign. The same is not true for social. To illustrate, let’s step back and look at this from another point of view, one that removes some of the hyperbole that surrounds online social.

Let’s say you’ve just decided to sell your 2007 Honda Civic. As you’re backing out of your driveway, your neighbor flags you down and asks you how you like your Honda, and if you know where she could buy a good used one? From your perspective, this aligning of the planets seems too good to be true, but it’s similar to what happens on a search engine millions of time every day. It’s the power of alignment with purchase intent.

But let’s take a different tack. Let’s imagine that as you drive down the street, you see that one of your neighbors is having a party. In front of their house, there are at least 12 cars parked, including four Hondas. “A-hah, “ you say, “a perfect gathering of potential Honda buyers, with at least 33% of them showing a preference for Hondas” (note: if this is what your internal dialogue actually sounds like, you should consider an extended leave from work). You ring the doorbell and begin to work the crowd. The only problem is, no one came to the party to buy a Honda. Not to mention the obvious question on everyone’s mind: “Who the hell invited you?”

If your goal is to unload your Honda, I know what scenario I’d be betting on. It almost seems ludicrous that we’re even considering Scenario B as a substitute for Scenario A. Yet, every three months, I get that survey asking me if I’m thinking about it.

I know — it doesn’t make any sense to me, either.

Don’t Typecast Search as “Direct”

First published September 29, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

We should have taken it as a sign of things to come.

The panel I was moderating at OMMA Global, with the highly provocative title “The Evolving Role of the Search Marketer,” was in a tiny room that seemed to be an afterthought of whoever planned the meeting space layout in the Marriott Marquis in New York. You actually had to walk through another, much larger room and go through a door tucked in the back corner. If one of the show organizers hadn’t been personally guiding me, I might never have found it.

The second sign was equally hard to miss. Outside the “secret” door to my session was a small standard that indicated that this was the “Direct” marketing track.

Okay, relegated to the back closet and in a track that restricted search to being a “direct” channel — so far things didn’t bode well for the insightful voyage of discovery I was envisioning.

Nevertheless, we forged ahead with a very enthusiastic audience (who were no doubt glad to just have found the session) and a very seasoned panel of search veterans (Rob Griffin, Havas; Dana Todd, Performics; Michael Verghios, Mindshare; Scott Brinker, ion Interactive). And we weren’t five minutes into the session before we started talking about search being pigeonholed as a direct channel.

In the beginning, we search marketers had no qualms about the “direct” label. As advertisers began demanding more accountability for each and every ad dollar, we were perfectly positioned to benefit from the budget migrations. Dollars poured into search, propelling Google to glowing financials quarter after quarter. We proudly evangelized the measurability of search, eagerly thrusting forth dashboards with a laser focus on ROI.

And it worked. We rode the wave through most of the last decade. Even when the economy ground to a screeching halt in 2008, search bounced through with nary a scratch, due largely to its credentials as the most effective digital direct channel. While marketing budgets as a whole were slashed, search budgets either stayed the same or grew marginally, thanks to the continuing inflow at the expense of other channels.

But somewhere in the midst of that giddy party, someone should have whispered in our ear, “Be careful what you wish for!” It’s like the actor who gets typecast in a role — just as Michael Richards seems doomed to be stuck in Cosmo Kramer’s persona, we may never shake the “direct” tag. We’re stuck at the direct marketing table –quite literally, in the case of the latest OMMA conference.

But, as we discussed in our session, that shuts the door to the huge potential of search to connect and inform all manners of marketing. Increasingly, consumer intent is playing out across a digital landscape and search is the “glue” that connects many of the dots. If search gets a seat at the strategic table, we can provide vital input into consumer behavioral trends, budget allocations and attribution models, targeting strategies and much more. Search remains the clearest crystallization of buyer intent available at any time in marketing history, anywhere. That’s what made it such a phenomenal direct channel, but its potential reaches beyond that. Its power remains only partly tapped as long as it’s considered solely a direct tactic.

Here’s one example. Prior to the recession, Google and other engines were struggling to break out of the direct box by commissioning research showing the branding power of search. My company did some of this work for them. We created search scenarios and then used standard branding recall metrics to measure brand lift. Sure enough, we found significant lift with effective placement on a results page. But the problem was that we were using the wrong yardstick. We were trying to measure search using metrics pioneered in other, less efficient media.

The true power of search, when it comes to branding, is positioning a brand in a critical place during the key consideration process. As buyers, we use search to help us compile a mental list of options to consider. If brands are present and prominent, they’re not only included, their credibility as an option is enhanced. But if they’re not, even if the buyer is aware of them, they run a real risk of being dropped from the consideration set.

We shouldn’t have been measuring search as a branding channel on the same footing as TV or magazines. It’s not. It’s actually even more exciting than that. Search is positioned at the critical branch in the decision path, where it can either significantly amplify the effects of those branding channels, or wipe out all their efforts in one fell swoop. That’s how potentially powerful search is.

But we may never get the chance to tell that message, which must be heard at the planning table where the overall strategies are drafted. You won’t hear us, because we’ll be over here at the direct table, somewhere in the back corners of the Marriott Marquis.

Is it Time to Relabel ” Marketing?

First published September 15, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I asked the question, “Is the word ‘search’ the right label for what we do on Google, Bing, Yahoo and other engines?” When Internet search debuted in the early 90s, it was probably pretty accurate. But today, the concept may have passed the label by.

And, if that is true, then the same is probably true for “search marketing.” The main gist of my argument last week was that the word “search” implies the expenditure of a significant effort with no guarantee of a successful outcome. But today, more than ever, we look to these engines to connect us with information and functionality. We want to “do” things when we click through to the other side of the search results.

I also said that it was difficult to find any one label that covers all our intentions when we turn to a “search” engine. In the beginning, when the Web was one large bucket of ill-formed data, “search” worked as a universal label. But that’s not true today. Now, the Web is becoming increasingly structured, and a search engine that excels at bringing order to unstructured data often falls disappointingly short when it comes to actually getting stuff done. In trying to be the universal Swiss Army Knife of the Web for many common tasks, Google (or Bing) doesn’t do any of them particularly well, we’re starting to find.  For many tasks, a dedicated and specialized app often does a far better job of meeting our expectations.

Again, this starts to define the conundrum currently facing search marketers. When the label we used was “search,” our job was simply to make sure our sites were “found.” Within the parameters defined by “searching” (to explore in order to discover), our job was straightforward: reduce the exploration effort required on the part of the searcher by moving our sites into a more “discoverable” position.

But what if we substitute some of the other labels I suggested last week for the word “search”? Suddenly, our job becomes much more complex.

Let’s start with “connection.” In this case, buyer s already have an idea that the right online destination exists, so they also have a preconceived notion of what they would find there. In game theory, this is called “expected utility.” In this case, our job is not simply to make the site easy to find, but also to make sure it’s a relevant match for our prospect’s expectations. If it isn’t, we may capture the click but miss the conversion. And that puts a whole new spin on search marketing. To understand how to create a “connection,” we have to understand what happens on both sides of the click: pre-connection and post-connection.

This requires us to delve into our prospect’s “frame of mind.” Again, the words used here provide a clue for what’s required as a marketer. A “frame” colors our entire view of things. There’s even a term for it in psychology: the “framing effect.” It’s categorized as a cognitive bias, which means that our frames determine our reality. To be successful “connection” marketers, we have to be familiar with our prospect’s “frame” of reference. When we are, we can provide a relevant and persuasive post-click path.

But “connection” wasn’t the only alternative label I proposed. What about “action” or “fulfillment?” Again, both ask us to substantially stretch our horizons as a marketer.

“Action” is an even more determinant label than connection. If we’re looking to take “action,” each step interposed between the end goal and the prospect is another level of frustration. Here, our job as “action” marketers is to remove as many of the steps as possible between intent and action. Actions are usually well defined and specific. We should be equally as specific in the alternatives we provide our prospects. Our calls to action should be a clear invitation to “do” things.

“Fulfillment” is a little tougher nut to crack. To be “fulfilled” can take several forms. Is there an emotional component? How would the prospect define “fulfillment”? Is the post-click result a step towards fulfillment, or does it take a prospect all the way there? A successful “fulfillment” marketer should be part psychologist and part clairvoyant.

Given the challenge we have in even attaching a label to what it is we do, it’s no wonder that recent analyst reports are all reporting a common theme: the best search marketers are expanding into other services. We’re expanding beyond “search” into “social,” “mobile,” “local,” “display” and other channels. It’s not so much that “search” is passé, rather it’s that “search” isn’t really the right label anymore. I’m not sure that “social” or “local” are any better. Personally, I think the perfect word, whatever it turns out to be, should clearly identify “why” people are online rather than “what” they’re doing online.

What’s in a Word?

First published September 8, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I served for six years as a director of the Search Engine Marketers Professional Organization. Every six months or so, we’d get together to talk about the future of the organization. As you can imagine, the future of an organization catering to industry professionals is inextricably linked to the future of the industry itself. So, our conversations weren’t so much about the future of SEMPO as they were about the future of search — and by extension, the future of search marketing.

Every time we embarked on this task of joint navel and crystal-ball gazing, we ran smack dab into the same dilemma: How do you define search? What is search? Should it even be called search any more? Esther Dyson, among others, thinks the term “search” may have outlived its usefulness. Perhaps “connection,” “fulfillment” or “action” has a better connotation. At least these words imply there’s something of substance on the other end of the search. They hint at successful outcomes. When Microsoft debuted Bing, the company sought to differentiate the product by calling it the “Decision” engine – “Bing is a search engine that finds and organizes the answers you need so you can make faster, more informed decisions.”

For me, words are important, so in trying to define the future of our industry, the words we choose to represent the concept tell us something about our feelings towards it.

Let’s start with “search,” the generic label we currently use: to “search” is to attempt to discover something. We search for a needle in a haystack. We search for a missing child or a runaway fugitive. We search for the truth. All seem to indicate an expenditure of significant effort but no guarantee of success. Given the state of the Internet when search engines debuted, it was an apt moniker. But today, that’s no longer the case. Today, I suspect, we launch almost every search with a clear expectation that somewhere out there, the information we seek exists. All we need is the right connection to it.

Given that, perhaps a “connection” engine is a better choice. To “connect” is to link known entities. Unlike with “search,” when we use the term “connect” we know our objective exists and we’re just trying to find the shortest path between points A and B.  The word better captures the navigational usage of search, which accounts for a huge percentage of total queries. I’ve used the term myself in the past when I’ve said that search is the “connection” between intent and content.

But even “connection” implies a certain statelessness. While it better captures our intent than does the verb search, I don’t know if it adequately represents the dynamic and participatory nature of our online activities. Whereas the verbs we used to use to define what we did online implied passive observance — “look,” “browse” and “surf” (I never did get that one, but at one time using it made you sound uber-cool) —  we now “book,” “post,” “comment,” “”tweet,” “buy” and participate in dozens of much more active ways, using more active verbs. Where once we went online to seek and consume information, we now want to “do” things.  We expect to do things. And so we use Google or Bing to find the right tool to allow us to do those things. That’s the rationale behind suggestions like “fulfillment” (to carry out, to satisfy or to develop to full potential) and “action” (something done or performed). Certainly, for some search tasks, calling Google or Bing an “action” engine would be a more appropriate description.

For some tasks — but not all. And that’s the problem we kept running into when we tried to define what search is. It’s tough to keep in any one box. It tends to be squishy and amorphous. And it has the habit of expanding into the ever-developing niches and crevasses of the online landscape.

So, was Bing right to call itself a “decision” engine? Is that the missing label that encapsulates all we look for in an engine? Do we need something to help us make better decisions (to compare and choose between alternatives)? It’s at least as good as “search”, and probably better, because it takes it one step further. It makes the assumption that the information about the best alternatives will be served to us by the engine.

While you might think this is just a frivolous exercise in semantics, I disagree. I think this question speaks to something fundamental in the evolution of search. We use words to label concepts — and when the labels no longer fit, it’s because the concept itself has changed. If we have trouble applying a word to something, it’s probably because we think of it in a different way than we used to. I believe this is true of search. And if we think of “search” differently, it means we must also think of “search marketing” differently.

Until next week…

The ZMOT Continued: More from Jim Lecinski

First published July 28, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I started my conversation with Jim Lecinski, author of the new ebook from Google: “ZMOT, Winning the Zero Moment of Truth.”  Yesterday, Fellow Search Insider Aaron Goldman gave us his take on ZMOT. Today, I’ll wrap up by exploring with Jim the challenge that the ZMOT presents to organizations and some of the tips for success he covers in the book.

First of all, if we’re talking about what happens between stimulus and transaction, search has to play a big part in the activities of the consumer. Lecinski agreed, but was quick to point out that the online ZMOT extends well beyond search.

Jim Lecinski: Yes, Google or a search engine is a good place to look. But sometimes it’s a video, because I want to see [something] in use…Then [there’s] your social network. I might say, “Saw an ad for Bobby Flay’s new restaurant in Las Vegas. Anybody tried it?” That’s in between seeing the stimulus, but before… making a reservation or walking in the door.

We see consumers using… a broad set of things. In fact, 10.7 sources on average are what people are using to make these decisions between stimulus and shelf.

A few columns back, I shared the pinball model of marketing, where marketers have to be aware of the multiple touchpoints a buyer can pass through, potentially heading off in a new and unexpected direction at each point. This muddies the marketing waters to a significant degree, but it really lies at the heart of the ZMOT concept:

Lecinski: It is not intended to say, “Here’s how you can take control,” but you need to know what those touch points are. We quote the great marketer Woody Allen: “‘Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up.”

So if you’re in the makeup business, people are still seeing your ads in Cosmo and Modern Bride and Elle magazine, and they know where to buy your makeup. But if Makeupalley is now that place between stimulus and shelf where people are researching, learning, reading, reviewing, making decisions about your $5 makeup, you need to show up there.

Herein lies an inherent challenge for the organization looking to win the ZMOT: whose job is that? Our corporate org chart reflects marketplace realities that are at least a generation out of date. The ZMOT is virgin territory, which typically means it lies outside of one person’s job description. Even more challenging, it typically cuts across several departments.

Lecinski: We offer seven recommendations in the book, and the first one is “Who’s in charge?” If you and I were to go ask our marketer clients, “Okay, stimulus — the ad campaigns. Who’s in charge of that? Give me a name,” they could do that, right? “Here’s our VP of National Advertising.”

Shelf — if I say, “Who’s in charge of winning at the shelf?” “Oh. Well, that’s our VP of Sales” or “Shopper Marketing.” And if I say, “Product delivery,” – “well that’s our VP of Product Development” or “R&D” or whatever. So there’s someone in charge of those classic three moments. Obviously the brand manager’s job is to coordinate those. But when I say, “Who’s in charge of winning the ZMOT?” Well, usually I get blank stares back.

If you’re intent on winning the ZMOT, the first thing you have to do is make it somebody’s job. But you can’t stop there. Here are Jim’s other suggestions:

The second thing is, you need to identify what are those zero moments of truth in your category… Start to catalogue what those are and then you can start to say, “Alright. This is a place where we need to start to show up.”

The next is to ask, “Do we show up and answer the questions that people are asking?”

Then we talk about being fast and being alert, because up to now, stimulus has been characterized as an ad you control. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s a study that’s released by an interest group. Sometimes it’s a product recall that you don’t control. Sometimes it’s a competitor’s move. Sometimes it’s Colbert on his show poking a little fun at Miracle Whip from Kraft. That wasn’t in your annual plan, but now there’s a ZMOT because, guess what happens — everybody types in “Colbert Miracle Whip video.” Are you there, and what do people see? Because that’s how they’re going to start making up their mind before they get to Shoppers Drug Mart to pick up their Miracle Whip.

Winning the ZMOT is not a cakewalk. But it lies at the crux of the new marketing reality. We’ve begun to incorporate the ZMOT into the analysis we do for clients. If you don’t, you’re leaving a huge gap between the stimulus and shelf — and literally anything could happen in that gap.

Marketing in the ZMOT: An Interview with Jim Lecinski

First published July 21, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

A few columns back, I mentioned the new book from Google, “ZMOT, Winning the Zero Moment of Truth.” But, in true Google fashion, it isn’t really a book, at least, not in the traditional sense. It’s all digital, it’s free, and there’s even a multimedia app (a Vook) for the iPad.

Regardless of the “book” ‘s format, I recently caught up with its author, Jim Lecinski, and we had a chance to chat about the ZMOT concept. Jim started by explaining what the ZMOT is: “The traditional model of marketing is stimulus – you put out a great ad campaign to make people aware of your product, then you win the FMOT (a label coined by Procter and Gamble) — the moment of truth, the purchase point, the shelf. Then the target takes home the product and hopefully it will live up to its promises. It makes whites whiter, brights brighter, the package actually gets there by 10:30 the next morning.

What we came out with here in the book is this notion that there’s actually a fourth node in the model  of equal importance.  We gave the umbrella name to that new fourth moment that happens in between stimulus and shelf: if it’s prior to FMOT, one minus F is zero, ‘Zero Moment of Truth.'”

Google didn’t invent the ZMOT, just as Procter & Gamble didn’t invent the FMOT. These are just labels applied to consumer behaviours. But Google, and online in general, have had a profound effect on a consumer’s ability to interact in the Zero Moment of Truth.

Lecinski: “There were always elements of a zero moment of truth. It could happen via word of mouth. And in certain categories, of course  — washing machines, automotive, certain consumer electronics — the zero moment of truth was won or lost in print publications like Consumer Reports or Zagat restaurant guide or Mobil Travel Guide.

But those things had obvious limitations. One: there was friction — you had to actually get in the car and go to the library. The second is timeliness  — the last time they reviewed wash machines might have been nine months ago. And then the third is accuracy: ‘Well, the model that they reviewed nine months ago isn’t exactly the one I saw on the commercial last night that’s on sale this holiday weekend at Sears.'”

The friction, the timeliness and the simple lack of information all lead to an imbalance in the market place that was identified by economist George Akerlof in 1970 as information asymmetry. In most cases, the seller knew more about the product than the buyer. But the Web has driven out this imbalance in many product categories.

Lecinski: “The means are available to everybody to remove that sort of information asymmetry and move us into a post-Akerlof world of information symmetry. I was on the ad agency side for a long time, and we made the TV commercial assuming information asymmetry. We would say, ‘Ask your dealer to explain more about X, Y, and Z.’

Well, now that kind of a call to action in a TV commercial sounds almost silly, because you go into the dealer and there’s people with all the printouts and their smartphones and everything… So in many ways we are in a post-Akerlof world. Even his classic example of lemons for cars, well, I can be standing on the lot and pull up the CARFAX history report off my iPhone right there in the car lot.”

Lecinski also believes that our current cash flow issues drive more intense consumer research.  “Forty seven percent of U.S. households say that they cannot come up with $2,000 in a 30-day period without having to sell some possessions,” he says. “This is how paycheck to paycheck life is.”

When money is tight, we’re more careful with how we part with it. That means we spend more time in the ZMOT.

Next week, I’ll continue my conversation with Jim, touching on what the online ZMOT landscape looks like, the challenge ZMOT presents marketers and the seven suggestions Jim offers about how to win the Zero Moment of Truth.

We’re Looking in the Wrong Place for our Attribution Models

First published June 16, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

The online landscape is getting more complex. Speaking from a marketer’s perspective, there are more points of influence that can alter a buyer’s path. At the last Search Insider Summit, John Yi from Facebook introduced us to something he called Pinball Marketing. It’s an apt analogy for the new online reality.

Hoping for a Strike

In the past, marketing was like bowling. You would build a campaign with sufficient critical mass and aim it toward your target, hoping at the end of the campaign (or lane) your aim was good enough, and the ball/campaign had enough kinetic energy (measured in REACH X FREQUENCY X AD ENGAGEMENT) to knock down all the potential customers.  If you think about marketing in this perspective, it explains the massive amount of pain traditional marketers are feeling as they pull their bowling-shoe-clad feet from the old world and gingerly dip their toes in the new. The bowler was in control (theoretically) and the success or failure of the campaign lay in her hands alone. The paradigm was simple, clean and linear, just the way we marketers like it.

The new game of marketing is much more like pinball. The intersections between a buyer’s decision path and a product’s marketing presence are many, and each can send the buyer off in a different direction. Some of those intersection points are within the marketer’s control — and some aren’t. Marketers now have to try to understand engagement and buyer impact at each of these intersections and, in the process, try to piece together a map of the buyer’s journey, assigning value in the appropriate places.

Repealing Newton’s Law

But even though the frenetic path of a pinball gets us a little closer to today’s marketing reality, it still doesn’t get us all the way, because there’s one fundamental difference: pinballs don’t have brains. Nor do they have emotions, feelings, or needs. Pinballs are just little metal spheres that obey the laws of physics.

And therein lies the difference.  How much more challenging would pinball be if, rather than relying on Newtonian physics to set the path of a ball coming off a flipper, it could decide whether it wanted to go right, left or simply stop dead in its tracks, refusing to go one inch further until you showed it a little more respect.  As physicist Murray Gell-Mann once quipped, “Imagine how hard physics would be if particles could think.”

As we try to understand what influences our buyers, we tend to apply something like the laws of physics to unraveling attribution. We apply formulas to various touchpoints, mathematically weighting their respective values. We can weight it to the first click, the last click, or divvy up the value based on some arbitrary calculation. But, in the end, as we try to figure out the new rules of marketing, we tend to forget that these balls have brains.

Go to the Source

If we want to understand what makes buyers buy, we should ask them. We should base attribution models on decision paths, not arbitrary formulas. We should walk through the buying landscape with our prospects, seeing how they respond at each intersection point. And when we build our attribution models, we should base them on psychology, not physics.

Is this approach harder than the holy grail of a universal attribution formula (or even multiple variations of said formula)? Absolutely. It’s fuzzy and sometimes messy. It tends to squirm around a lot. And unlike Newtonian physics, it depends on context. What I’m proposing is riddled with “ifs” and “maybes.” In short, it’s human in its ambiguity, and that’s really the whole point. I would much rather have ambiguity that’s somewhat right than clarity that’s completely wrong.

There is No Blank Slate in Marketing

First published May 26, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

In 2002, Steven Pinker wrote a book called “The Blank Slate.” For 509 pages, Pinker argues that when it comes to our brains, and by extension, our minds, there is no such thing as a blank slate. While our destinies are not predetermined by our genes, there are certainly hardwired mechanisms that influence the paths we take.  It’s not solely nature or nurture, but a combination of both. Our minds are neither perfectly malleable plastic (the “blank slate” of behavioralists) nor are they cast in stone. In the end, you cannot deny human nature.

Recently, Google has been spending a lot of time talking about the Zero Moment of Truth, or ZMOT for short. In effect, they’re saying that when it comes to influencing a buyer, Pinker’s argument is also applicable. In marketing, as in psychology, there is no such thing as a blank Ssate.

Former Procter and Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley started this market-driven quest for truth a few years ago when he introduced the first and second moments of truth. The first (abbreviated as the FMOT) was when the customer is standing in front of the store shelf, trying to decide which package to pick up.  It’s been labeled the most important moment in all of marketing. The second moment of truth is what the customer actually experiences when she uses the product.

But Google, led by ZMOT evangelists including U.S. director of sales Jim Lecinski, is stepping backwards from the FMOT to show that there’s a whole chain of activity that now leads up to the FMOT, which has received the collective Zero Moment of Truth label. It appears that we marketers need a crystallization of the ultimate moment of decision where the balance of a consumer’s mind is tipped in favor of our product.  To use the blank slate metaphor, it’s the moment when the “brand” is seared into our cortical grey matter.

Google is correct in drawing attention to the substantial research that precedes most purchases. The biggest change in the marketplace has been the balancing of Akerlof’s information asymmetry in favor of the buyer. No longer does the seller hold all the cards in the typical transaction. We buyers research because we can. It’s the way we not only mitigate risk but also explore the expected utility of a purchase.  These are fundamental components of decision theory.  The mechanisms that drive decision theory haven’t changed, but the information available to us certainly has.

But even with all this access to information, we still approach buying decisions with our all-too-human biases and foibles. Our online research is filtered through brand beliefs and emotional prejudgments. Even on the search results page, that most brand-agnostic of advertising pallets, brand is a powerful predictor of behavior.  If we launch a search by using a generic product category term, we often have a short list of brands we expect to see bubble to the top of the results page. There is no blank slate here waiting to be impressed upon. There is a sometimes-vague notion of brand preference waiting to be confirmed by Google’s algorithm. And we scan the results page guided by our expectations and preconceptions.

The ZMOT landscape is a difficult thing to map. Google is providing some guidance through the new ebook,, with some practical advice for marketers. This should be a valuable addition to the marketer’s virtual bookshelf. Jim is a smart marketer and Google has privileged access to all of our ZMOT behavior. But, as with everything in marketing, there will be no hard and fast rules. One of the challenges in producing repeatable results in an experimental setting is to control the variables that could impact outcomes. But one of those variables is human nature, and when the experimental setting is marketing, you’re just going to have to accept the fact that there will always be a significant degree of unpredictability.

Uncovering the “Curse of Captiva”

First published May 5, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

“May you live in interesting times….”

Just about the time you’re reading that line, I’ll be kicking off the Search Insider Summit on Captiva Island, Fla., with it.  I think those six words pretty much sum up the theme of the three-day event.

Here’s the thing about that well-known quote – it’s both a blessing and a curse. On the surface, it appears to be a benevolent wish of good will, but lurking just under the surface lays a malevolent storm that can rip organizations and institutions apart.

The origins of the so-called “Chinese Curse” are murky, but according to Wikipedia, it may be related to the Chinese proverb: “It’s better to be a dog in peaceful times than to be a man in chaotic ones;” perhaps one reason why we should let “sleeping dogs lie.” This is all well and good if we have any choice in the matter, but we really don’t. Chaos, especially in our chosen field, is the new normal. Like it or not, we live in interesting times.

Personally, I like it, even though it can get exhausting at times. I’m one of those perverse individuals who thrive on chaos and change. If things become too placid for too long, my inclination is to get a big stick and stir things up. I’m driven by the belief that there must be a better way. But I know not everyone shares that view. For many, if not most, change brings uncertainty, which usually comes knocking with its traveling companions: stress and anxiety.

Change, in various forms, is pretty much all we’ll be talking about at Captiva. If change was a sure bet, a trading of the mediocre for the improved, there really wouldn’t be much to talk about. Change would be sought, embraced and systematically incorporated into everything we do.

The problem with change is that there are no guarantees ensuring you’ll end up in a better place. It’s tossing that which you know in the bucket and taking a chance on drawing a new lot in life that could be better, the same, or worse — perhaps much worse. And there’s the rub. Humans don’t approach such decisions rationally.

There’s a lot of unusual psychology at play here, covered by numerous economic behavioral theories like endowment effect, loss aversion, disposition effect and Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory. The long and the short of it is that most times, we believe a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. And attitudes of that sort generally freeze change right in its tracks. We have not evolved to be born risk takers. This tendency can create bizarre behaviors that defy logic: like investors being much more willing to sell stocks that have gained in value than those that have decreased. We’ve all done that, with the unshakable belief that we can recoup our losses. But a purely statistical analysis of that theory would blow it to smithereens.

Through most of our history, the genetic evidence would seem to vindicate this aversion to risk. That we’re still around points to its success as a survival strategy. But current times are not representative of our general history. There are times, this being one of them, when external factors in our environment force us to make changes and embrace risk. Those that hesitate are lost.

During these times, it’s the nimble and adaptable that thrive. Bulk and baggage are impediments. Reinvention is the name of the game. It’s the prerequisite of living in interesting times.