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.

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.