Dear Search Marketers:

I’m worried about us.

The way we’ve started talking about our target audience has me concerned that our priorities may be out of whack. By target audience I don’t mean our clients or employers. I mean the people to whom we’re marketing—the human beings performing the searches and on whose backs we make our living.

I’ve been wanting to address this issue for some time, but haven’t done so for fear of offending people. But I’m over that. So here’s the potentially offensive stuff…

Watch your language

Here’s my concern: I’m hearing more and more people in this industry using language that indicates a complete lack of respect for the average searcher—essentially treating them like eyeballs—or, God forbid, TV viewers.

A few examples of the disrespectful language I’m talking about:

  • “Get them to fill in the form.”
  • “Create a sense of urgency so they’ll buy now.”
  • “Trap them with a pop-up on exit so they can’t leave.”

And my favorite:

  • “Capture their information”

I always cringe when I hear that one. As if searchers are like lumbering beasts careening dumbly through the forest, and we’re the hunters lying in wait so we can kill and eat them (I picture Homer Simpson: “mmmmmm, searcher….”). That’s hardly the mindset one should have when the goal is to begin a relationship. That is the goal, right…? I’ll get back to that later.

Search marketers becoming order takers?

I’ve had the chance to interact with a number of search marketers and agencies over the years. While a few have really impressed me with their business savvy and  professionalism, I’ve been disappointed by a recent trend toward over-specialization. Many of the people who’ve come into the field in the past 2-3 years know one aspect of search well, but have thin knowledge beyond their primary area of focus. Some know the SEM platforms, some know landing page design and optimization, some know metrics, and so on. What worries me is that we risk becoming an industry of order-takers and, as a result, producing campaigns that seriously underperform over time. If that happens, many advertisers will conclude that search isn’t as valuable as they thought, and the industry will suffer. I think the cause of this problem—and therefore the solution—lies in having an appreciation for the target audience/s to whom we’re marketing: the searchers.

Let me acknowledge up front that search marketers have a hard job. There are an insane number of moving parts to manage with search campaigns, and clients want results immediately. The short-term focus we develop is a natural outgrowth of those and other pressures. But the result is that many search marketers end up with their head in the weeds, and not very strategically focused. All the focus on short-term factors like rankings, traffic, CTR’s, CPC’s and even conversion rates can be misguided—and is eerily similar to the TV industry’s focus on ratings. I worry that if we keep this up, we’ll actually end up inhibiting an organization’s long-term success because we’re so often focused on the wrong metrics.

Say you have an e-commerce site. What’s the real end goal for such a business? To sell something once? That feels short-sighted. But that’s the usual outcome of focusing exclusively on maximizing short-term conversions, which is the approach that most search marketers take. Instead, why not think a little bigger about how to sell something now while also laying the groundwork for future additional sales? That’s hard. It’s also not how we tend to be compensated. So it’s no surprise few people do it. Yet it’s a trap we should aim to avoid if we can, lest we end up like our brethren in the broadcast world.

Search vs. TV

I’ve always liked search marketing for its pragmatism and data-driven nature. Search marketers have an inside line into the thinking of their audience. That knowledge gives us the power to tap into a demand stream to target and customize our messages at a very granular level. And it has worked better than anyone could’ve predicted. Search marketing is still growing substantially, while offline media and other forms of advertising are virtually collapsing. It would be easy to view this as a victory over the broadcast advertisers who thought they could get people to change their behavior by drilling a message into their heads enough times. And it is a victory of sorts, even if against an already-wounded opponent.

The broadcast advertising establishment can point to any number of causes for their current dire situation. There are a lot of complicated reasons and macro factors involved. But I think the answer is simple. I think one of the biggest causes was that they got cocky and assumed their power would never be challenged. So they stopped caring about keeping their real audience – TV watchers, radio listeners, direct mail recipients, and so on – happy and instead focused more and more on maximizing short-term advertising revenue and serving the fickle god of ratings.

I could expound on the aggressive stupidity and inaccuracy of the TV ratings systems, but I’ll save that for another time. My point is that even if TV ratings were accurate, they’d still be the wrong success metric for the industry to rely on exclusively because they don’t provide any measure of customer loyalty or long-term value. TV ratings remind me of the dot-com boom, when all anyone cared about was how many eyeballs a website had. That didn’t end so well.

It’s not a “relationship,” either

So, if disrespectful language is a symptom of a problem, then perhaps it can be fixed by nurturing a relationship with the audience. Right?

Actually, I have a problem with that language as well. It’s just taking the same unfeeling concept of users as cattle to the other warm and fuzzy extreme (“I love you, you love me…”). Seriously, what thinking person considers the act of buying something from a web site as a relationship? I have a relationship with my friends, my family and other people to whom I have some real bond. I don’t have a relationship with a web site (despite what you may have heard). It just doesn’t reach the level of emotional involvement or long-term commitment required to qualify as a relationship. I can say I love Apple products, but that doesn’t mean I have a relationship with Apple. Because I don’t love Apple “like that.” I love their products. And that’s a key distinction. If my laptop froze in the middle of a public speaking engagement and caused me major embarrassment, then I’d be less inclined to use that product in the future. But I wouldn’t get a divorce from the offending party or cut off all ties with them (no matter how tempting that might be, PowerPoint).

So if users aren’t drooling idiots or my best buddies, then what language should we use to talk about our user objectives? I vote for this one:

Customer engagement

Why customer engagement? It’s simple, realistic and doesn’t overpromise. Most of all, it accurately describes the sensation most advertisers would like to evoke in their target audience: a sense of engagement.

Customer engagement isn’t a new term, or even a new concept. However, it’s enjoying a renaissance of sorts in regards to online marketing. For those wanting to dive deeper on the topic, Richard Sedley and his team at cScape has written a very good (not to mention prescient) book called “Winners and Losers in A Troubled Economy.” You can download it for free from the website.

I’ve pasted the table of contents here because I don’t think the title does the book’s topic justice:

  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: New marketing: the old ways will not do
  • Chapter 2: The changing face of the customer
  • Chapter 3: Creating an online customer engagement strategy
  • Chapter 4: How to create your own online customer engagement successes
  • Chapter 5: The tactics for creating a customer engagement strategy
  • Chapter 6: Measuring online customer engagement
  • Chapter 7: What role can digital media play during a recession?
  • Conclusion

The authors have clearly done a lot of thinking about the topic of online customer engagement. They offer concrete tactics to help them improve their customer engagement quotient and recommend some good metrics organizations can use to measure engagement.

I like the concept because it takes a more holistic view of marketing effectiveness, while staying grounded in real-world measurable behaviors. It also has some similarities to behavioral economics, wherein you base economic policy on what people actually do in response to various scenarios instead of what economic theories tell you they should do. That shouldn’t be revolutionary, but for some reason it is.

I think the concept is so powerful that it’ll start catching on with more progressive organizations very quickly. In fact, the 2009 Online Customer Engagement Survey, also conducted by cScape and e-Consultancy, indicates that interest is rising already, although clearly the term means different things to different people. It makes for fascinating reading.  (Full disclosure: My firm assisted in promoting the survey in the US.)

It requires thinking a bit differently—and therefore will be rejected outright by many—but my sense is that those willing to embrace customer engagement as a strategic goal will be poised to outperform in the future.

What customer engagement means for search

I’ve taken some liberty talking about a general topic like customer engagement in a column about searcher behavior. It’s a stretch, but not as much as it seems. User experience matters so much to Google that they incorporate relevance and user experience factors into their Quality Score calculation, thus charging advertisers who offer a better user experience discounted rates. Think about that. Google essentially gives money away to advertisers who provide a superior user experience. And not just a token amount of money, but as much as 30% based on our experience. That’s how much Google values customer engagement.

Why does Google do it? Because they know that offering a better user experience for searchers engenders loyalty. They knew they’d take a short-term revenue hit by implementing such a mechanism. If they’d focused only on what the numbers were telling them, there’s no way they’d have made this move. But they fundamentally believed that ensuring a better experience for searchers would yield long-term rewards for them. I’d like to think they may have had some customer engagement metrics that helped to justify this decision. Regardless, time has proven them right and their already dominant market share has only grown further.

To be clear, I don’t love everything Google does. I could provide a long list of complaints about them as an agency/advertiser. But I have to give them credit for putting their money where their mouth is on the topic of user/searcher experience; they show respect for their end user audience.

Contrast that approach with Microsoft’s recent Cashback program, wherein they essentially bribe users into using their search engine, by literally paying them to do search. Does anyone really think that Microsoft is going to sustain any market share gains this program yields once it ends? Put me down as doubtful.

Look up from the spreadsheet

A quote from Richard Sedley’s book, mentioned above:

It is important to recognise that customer engagement places conversions—the ultimate goal of marketing—into a longer term, more strategic context and is premised on the understanding that a simple focus on maximising conversions can, in some circumstances, decrease the likelihood of repeat conversions. The pushy sales person will gain a sale, but the store will lose a customer.

Understood in this way, it should be clear that the long-term goal of customer engagement is to encourage loyalty and even advocacy from the customer. As such, your level of customer engagement is the best indicator of how your business will fare in any economic downturn. Indeed, regardless of prevailing economic conditions, it is probably fair to say that an engaged relationship is really your only cast iron guarantee of profitable future performance.

The takeaway: It’s not always about the ROI you can prove. Sometimes you have to look up from the spreadsheet, put yourself in your target audiences’ shoes and act on a vision for what will yield an engaging experience. It isn’t easy, but that’s what will be required to achieve breakout SEM success moving forward.

We’re moving toward an era where the mechanics of SEM will be increasingly commoditized. Those who know how to create good end-to-end user experiences and appreciate both the art and the science of SEM will have an advantage over those who only know how to build keyword lists, write ads, and generate reports.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Features: General | Search & Usability

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About The Author: is the CEO of Closed Loop Marketing, a search marketing agency specializing in conversion optimization. He also co-authored the best-selling book, Web Design for ROI.

Connect with the author via: Email



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