Yahoo! Shines a Light on Subtleties of Search

I’m late writing about this but before SES I was in New York as a panelist in Yahoo!’s first Search Light Award event. It brought together four finalist ad agencies to show how they’d integrated search marketing into their broader campaigns and to discuss and answer questions about their efforts.

The event was organized by Yahoo!’s Ron Belanger, formerly of Carat. iMedia’s Kevin Ryan has a very detailed write-up of the event here. The winner was RPA Interactive for its Honda Element campaign (I voted for this one but they still didn’t give me the car).

This event was great and helped bring together a number of things for me and send me down a path toward more "nuanced" thinking about search and how consumers interact with it — and some of the implications for marketers.

Search has historically been perceived as a direct response medium. More recently there’s been a great deal of talk about it being a "branding" medium. Some skeptics believe this is merely a ploy to lure ad budgets online. Some time ago I tried to characterize it as something in between true awareness and direct response. Two older, relevant posts along those lines here and here (forgive the formatting problems).

In my observation, a majority of the folks at SES still want to see search marketing as direct response; it’s a much less complicated animal that way. Also, tracking and ROI are more straightforward in that context. But in fact search and the way consumers interact with it is much more dynamic and complex. Here’s a previous post about how local and national campaigns can serve both direct response and branding objectives based upon user behavior and the different stages of the "buying cycle" they appeal to.

The "integrated" campaigns presented at the Yahoo! Searchlight event really helped demonstrate to me the way that search often sits in the middle between some stimulus (traditional marketing) and a buying decision that happens elsewhere (usually locally, in the real world). Yet measuring the efficacy of search as a quasi branding tool is fundamentally challenging and figuring out what happens "after the click" is also challenging. Indeed, search doesn’t get credit for all the transactions it actually affects because the tracking isn’t being done (one of the reasons calls are important).

But back to the campaigns. Two of the finalists, Chase and Honda, were actually able to create search "inventory" by building search campaigns around unique elements in their traditional creative — terms that no one was bidding for but them. This was a very significant "takeaway" for me. Rather than having to relentlessly bid on "credit card," Chase was able to stimulate consumer searches for unique terms that appeared in its print ad campaign that no other company was competing for and thus were cheap by comparison. The implications of this are immediate and obvious.

And there were many more interesting aspects to the event and the campaigns presented. Another thing to think about is how brand and direct response marketers might soon be bidding against each other for the same terms but with different objectives and ROI calculations. Very interesting to consider.

One thing that is now clear about the Internet and search in particular: Consumers hear/read about or see something and they immediately or ultimately wind up online looking for more information. Where do they typically start? Search engines. That’s not going to change soon and it’s true even if it’s just to plug a company name into the toolbar or search box to go directly to a site (essentially a White Pages lookup).

Rather than fear search, traditional marketers need to see search as an inevitable part of consumer behavior and leverage that behavior to maximize and extend the value of their traditional campaigns. If they don’t their competitors will.

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