To many I'm stating the obvious. Thousands of marketers have already spotted this new moment of truth and spent billions trying to capitalize on these declarations of intent-the evidence of their enthusiasm provided quarterly by rocketing revenues at Google and Yahoo.
Yet few seem to have integrated their Web operations with the rest of their marketing. In most marketing departments or agencies, the folks who evaluate and buy keywords or optimize search engines sit in a separate silo from the rest of the ad or marketing team. Some algorithmists say traditional marketing execs don't understand what they do -- even fear it. That fear and those silos are preventing many organizations from taking advantage of search's ability to inform marketing strategies and messaging approaches.
What are they missing? Well, as with other forms of Internet marketing, search delivers an unrivaled level of detail on the efficiency of the media buy. A marketer that has purchased keywords across a number of search engines can determine which site yielded the most searches by its keyword, clicks on its ad or actions on its Web site. In other words, you can quickly tell if one site does nothing for your sales, while another delivers tire-kickers and another big spenders.
Search can also reveal what messages convert that interest to action. Fathom Online, a company that evaluates and optimizes search-marketing efforts, is using a system called multi-variant creative analysis, which simultaneously tests eight search ads, all employing different copy or images. It allows the advertiser to determine which ad sparks what behavior.
"You can test which words or phrases resonate with the consumer. Does 20% off do better than $20 off in drawing people in?" says Fathom's Chris Churchill. "You can test anything."
It is easy to see how such information might inform marketing strategy and message. But isn't there a risk that this proof of what works deadens creative instinct and stifles the risk-taking crucial to innovation? Not, says Churchill, if it's used properly. "This isn't anti-creative," he says. "In fact it works best when it's in the hands of a creative who knows how to use it."
You might not expect creatives to flock to a system that effectively uses computer algorithms to calculate the best message, but Churchill insists "they're very receptive" to using the information Fathom can give them-a sentiment echoed by Google, which has a team currently touring ad agencies teaching them how best to use search.
It's a skill they can't afford not to learn. The reality is that such a system doesn't preclude creative thinking; in fact it can trigger big ideas by getting to the heart of what consumers really do, rather than what they say they do in an artificial research environment.
It's powerful information that can turn creatives into heroes whose campaign idea or copywriting can show a real return for the client overnight-rather than a boardroom hit or miss. And rather than curtailing creativity, it can help persuade clients to overcome their conservatism and take a risk. "Often edgier ideas that the client wasn't so sure about prove themselves in search tests," says Churchill. Fathom that.
Mainstream marketers and creatives don't have to understand the programming, but they do need to get with the program.