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How SEMs Can Fly Out of Their Pigeonholes

Published: May 30, 2012

Author: Sean Marshall

Image source: thesaint-online.com
SEMs have backed themselves into a corner. An argument can be made that our emphasis on metrics-driven performance marketing has restricted our ability to take on new platforms and channels like mobile and Facebook (respectively). The assumption is that SEMs are ideally positioned to manage these – whether because of their auction systems or because they can be accessed through tools we already use – but in a data-dependent community waiting for the next generation of data to prove why we should make the leap, an adjustment needs to be made.
It’s not uncommon for SEMs to feel like one-trick ponies. I’ve heard it many times from members of the different agency teams I’ve led – “I don’t want to get ‘stuck’ doing this and only this.” It’s a big marketing world out there, and I’m sure many have felt this way. Between the growth of GDN and the advent of Facebook and mobile advertising, SEMs may have gotten more than they bargained for. While SEM is the ultimate direct-response channel, these other areas require a different tack.
I’ve heard it argued that one needs more qualitative skills in display/social than the quantitative skills mandatory in SEM. Phooey, I say. If you didn’t have qualitative skills to begin with, I doubt you’re pushing paid search to its full potential. What fascinates me is what happens at the intersection of the two: attribution, the key to unlocking the channels.
Understanding the qualities and characteristics of users at different points in the buying cycle, as they interact with media on different platforms/channels, all the while distilling this understanding into optimizable metrics – this is the key to attribution. And we’re not quite there yet.
The primary challenge is that someone needs to take a leap of faith and engage in unproven areas and pay the price for learning. While I could spin a complex tell of brand influence, engagement, and social interaction which, hypothetically, translates to sales, the proof is in the puddin’. Read: ya need some numbers! Of course this data needs to stand up to scrutiny and show some positives to build on. We certainly don’t want a sloppy advertiser to take the first stab at this, publish findings, and validate all of our worst fears about the effectiveness of Facebook as part of a marketing mix.
The Towers of (data) Babel. (Image credit: collaborationforgood.org)
Digital direct-response marketers (led by SEMs) have created a chicken-or-egg scenario where arguments that can only be won by metrics (e.g. Facebook advertising works!), don’t have any metrics to support them – yet. The hope is that the networks themselves will lead the charge in proving the value of emerging channels. Obviously, Google won’t go out of its way to prove the value of Facebook, but that’s precisely the kind of proof that could fast-track a new age in digital marketing.
As we break down barriers between display and search, new potential is unlocked. The introduction of multi-channel metrics, facilitated by having a single service provider for both search and display inventory, has validated many a hypothesis about demand creation and fulfillment. Facebook advertising and mobile advertising are next. Accurate cross-device and platform tracking is nearly upon us, and when it is, SEMs will get the chance to fly out of that pigeonhole.
While I couldn’t recommend pushing mobile and FB to many of our customers, the time will come soon.  The reality is that people are using their phones more, your traditional desktop search impressions are going mobile, and people are spending their time on FB (have you seen most YoY insights for search trends going down?). The moment technology catches up will be the time to pounce. In the meantime, get your act together and find a compelling story to tell.  Resistance is futile.
Sean Marshall, Director of Search Engine Marketing

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