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Has Our Simple, Empty Search Box Finally Found Friends?

Posted on Tuesday, August 25th, 2009 by Print This Post Print This Post

Categories - SEM

Search Engine Marketers are under constant pressure these days with tightening budgets and rising CPCs while the companies they serve are still looking for and expecting growth. As it becomes more difficult to look outside the immediate SEM bubble, companies and advertisers alike need to step away from pushing ads onto customers and look around. The internet has become a much richer environment and online advertising needs to engage customers in ways beyond our beloved, simple search box.

The search engines and the individual tools to serve them have been optimized to track every movement around keywords and ads – now so precise that they know to whom, what and where these are being served. This tracking technology has served online advertising well and is the reason it has stayed relevant and strong during tough times. At the same time, online marketing is becoming less about advertiser’s interests being pushed on users – through pop ups, spam and intrusive messaging – and more about naturally weaving interaction into a consumers overall online experience.

Did we really think this simple, empty box would be the only way to ever drive online sales? Frankly, I am surprised it has virtually stood alone this long. It’s a single, empty box for {Keyword: Enter Favorite Swear Word}-sakes! Genius on one hand, but as more rich media makes it to home computers, phones and multimedia centers, it becomes more difficult to truly engage consumers with plain text.

In the past, the search box was the essential starting point because there was simply too much unconnected information available online. Sites were floating around in ‘cyberspace’ and the only digestible way to get most people to them was through the engines. If all a user needed to do was enter words into a box, how difficult could it be? Even Grandma Lily felt like she had a handle on it all. But now, our empty, simple search box has quietly found less obvious marketing friends as more engaging content continues to emerge. Destinations like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Flickr are pulling more people into a more social and rich-media based starting point online. Users are now coming in at a variety of places yet advertisers remain focused only on the simple search box. The online experience has shifted and advertisers must follow suit.

Keywords vs. People

Keywords have been the centerpiece of online marketing strategies. They tell advertisers what people are directly asking the internet to give them. But now – as various panelists agreed with at SES ’09 – online advertising strategies should start focusing more on the people behind the search rather than just the keyword themselves. People are expressing themselves online as more than just consumers. YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter are now offering engagement where there is nothing to buy. Lifestyle and personalities are valued more than click history. The public’s desire for social interaction and more engaging media has given these sites firm footing in this new, rich landscape. Advertisers must acknowledge this and meet them there. If initial strategy sessions start focusing more on the people we are trying to serve, new and creative ideas can open up on how best to engage and foster a deeper relationship with online users.

Romance is Back – Bring Flowers and Dance!

How can advertisers engage these online ‘socialites’ and continue to drive sales? Romance, baby! For all the companies sitting at the edge of the dance floor holding up the walls, now is the time to cut some rug. For everyone who thinks it’s too expensive to give flowers on the first date, your beautiful dates may just walk on by. It is becoming socially unacceptable these days to treat potential and returning customers simply as buyers and track their activity from a distance. Numbers are even beginning to reflect this when you look at sites just trying to hold customers without offering a new, rich experience. People want to be engaged and seen as virtual investors because saving their money has become so important. Sales are now more involved than just getting potential customers down the historical purchase funnel as quickly as possible.

Death of Black Boxes and Secret Sauces

People want transparency and are rewarding companies that offer it online by investing in their products. Yet many sites can easily foster a cold, ‘man behind the curtain’ experience if they are not actively pursuing customer engagement. Are you offering your customers the whole story and giving them a direct path to interact? Is there a place for people to openly talk about your products and services? If not, chances are your company’s organic results in the search engines are being negatively affected as the they are now including blogs, reviews, and message boards in the listings. If you are not offering this forum, bloggers and active internet users are creating one for you from their posts and reviews. Companies without interaction are being seen as having no ‘internet soul’ and losing customers to those who do. But fear not, this ‘new soul’ can be created by engaging new media and creating a direct channel of contact between you and your customers.

Need Some Soul? Go Grab a Beer

Go to your favorite bar and look around. Does it have the cheapest beer, brightest colors, optimal layout for movement, accessible bathrooms and the most ergonomically advanced chairs? Probably not. This is a great point another panelist at SES ’09 made when talking about SEM. Clean numbers from carefully mapped out keywords sent to optimized landing pages give us key insight into performance, but they are not the only reason why a site does well. Bars are set up for environment, experience, and ambiance and work well because of it. With many of the social sites offering more of this experience – where personality is valued more than CTR numbers – advertisers need to find new ways to include this in order to highlight the ‘soul’ of the companies they represent. People need to see who the company is and what they stand for in order to identify with that. Without putting a stake in the ground and communicating specific values, companies risk leaving their expensive SEM investment to convert on its own simply from behind the often cold and uninspired wall of their landing page.

Bells and Whistles

Incorporating rich media into an advertising strategy – like video or pictures exclusive to your products and people – is a positive start. Though most companies probably won’t catch lighting in a bottle with viral video ads, customers will see a willingness to engage, have fun, and adjust to their needs. Even Google and the new ‘Binghoo’ are currently in beta testing to include rich media – like video, pictures, maps, reviews – directly in their search results. If a company chooses to stay in the paradigm of basic text ads from a simple blank box, their strategies will soon be left far behind.

Many sites are also engaging users with contests, blogs and live chat rooms centered on this new media. Twitter is even being used as real time customer service and 24 hour engagement. Companies have Facebook pages and are soliciting not only clicks, but recommendations on how to offer more relevant products and experiences. More and more, consumers are jumping into the driver’s seat and helping steer companies to where they want to go.

Though it is difficult to precisely track how engagement with this social culture affects specific sales, trying new things and highlighting company culture seem to be ‘best bets’ so far. New ways to use your product and fun contests around them are also very unique ways to dive in. Setting money aside for such outreach is definitely daunting, especially as businesses struggle to meet their bottom line. But failing to do so will limit long term growth as others find new ways to actively attract and listen to their valued customers in this new social landscape online.

About Ryan Jamison

Ryan has been at The Search Agency since 2008 and now serves as Senior Group Director of Paid Search. Past employers include Yahoo!, Inc. and STAR Education. Ryan is a graduate of UC Berkeley with postgraduate study completed at the American Film Institute. Ryan has over nine years of experience in creative advertising for both TV and search engine marketing. His hobbies include sports, music and enjoying the deserts and beaches of Southern California.

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