Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Elvis Presley and the growth of search

 A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

In 1954, the year he released “That’s all right”, there was just one Elvis Presley.  By his death in 1977, there were 170 Elvis impersonators.  That number is now estimated to be over 85,000 – and at this rate of growth by 2019 they will make up a third of the world’s population.

Back in the late ‘90s this anecdote was used regularly to satirise the endless supply of projections the internet’s growth tended to generate.  But the continued growth of paid search – the advertising taken by Google, Yahoo, MSN et al – is sticking two fingers up at such scepticism.

Search marketing in the UK grew 58% in the first six months of last year, and there’s no sign that this rate of growth is abating.  Google is widely expected to be the fourth largest media company by revenue in the world this year, and in the UK, the paid search market is already bigger than radio. 

But the dizzying growth of search and the powerful results it creates for their businesses is creating a dangerous tunnel-vision amongst online marketers.   They risk failing to reflect how consumers act online – and a marketer moves away from the consumer at their peril.

It’s always been recognised that different media work together.  Campaigns are created across TV, press and outdoor, and this is an accepted part of advertising life – reflecting consumers’ consumption of media and the different strengths each medium offers.

Online however, search is often treated as something different.  The ability to measure a cost per sale on search advertising is a powerful attractor to marketing folk, who have laboured for years under the disbelieving eye of their FD.  So there’s a real temptation to attribute the creation of a sale to the last step in the acquisition process – often a search – and call this ‘accountability’.

The impact of TV, press or other internet ad forms is ignored, because the last step was a search.  But understanding that these other channels might have influenced the inception of a search is not enough.  We need to understand the degree to which these media impact on searches in order to assess the true value of search, and recognise the precise role it plays – not just in a high-level ‘strategic’ way, but on the ground, minute-by-minute.

Search operators understand this interdependence.  That’s why Google are developing display products, why MSN launched Adcenter to integrate the management of display and search, and why Yahoo are rebuilding their interface with advertisers to move seamlessly between search and display.

But many advertisers and agencies continue to manage search, affiliate marketing and display in silos – using different tracking systems, different KPIs, teams and even companies.  These are specialist disciplines, but if they’re not tied together around the brand’s needs then they’re failing to deliver on the interdependencies that are proven to exist.

At worst, there will be duplication – results claimed by search, and also by affiliates or display, with no way of de-duping.  The ability dynamically to divert budget from one channel to another will be hampered by individual targets and P&Ls.  And the potential to exploit these synergies – how display can increase the cost effectiveness of search by influencing the ratio of brand to generic searches, how display advertising can form a crucial part of an affiliate incentive programme, how rules of engagement for search need to be agreed with affiliates – all of these can be lost in the gaps between silos.

Integration has long been an objective within traditional media operations.  Online, the integration of search, affiliates and display has tangible and immediate benefits – not at a corporate “one-stop shop” level, but at a real, down in the detail operational level – and many advertisers are way behind both media owners and consumers in reflecting this.

Search might be set to outstrip Elvis impersonation as the fastest growing industry ever.  But the irony is, it’s at the same time over-valued and under-exploited by many of the people whose businesses rely on it.