Search expert Hotchkiss talks about trends

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BtoB caught up with Gord Hotchkiss, CEO of b-to-b search agency Enquiro, at the Search Engine Strategies Conference in New York Tuesday, to ask him about the latest trends in search marketing and the challenges b-to-b search marketers face.

BtoB: What is the biggest growth area in search marketing?

Hotchkiss: The interesting area in terms of revenue growth is local search. Local search is getting to that critical-mass place, I think over the next year, where it starts to make sense for advertisers.

BtoB: Where is the search community right now in terms of local search?

Hotchkiss: One of the biggest problems with local search is content on the part of the advertiser. Local businesses don’t tend to have much as of a Web presence, so there was nothing to index. It was hard to get out there and provide the user with the quality experience they get from the Yellow Pages or something like that. They were used to that paradigm. But now a couple things are starting to happen. One is local businesses are starting to have more of a Web presence. There are also businesses sprouting up that help local businesses take content from other media and shift them over to create kind of an on-the-fly Web presence. We’re getting close to getting to the horizon now of people getting the experience they want, and when you do that, local search makes tons of sense.

BtoB: What other trends do you see?

Hotchkiss: Internet access is becoming more ubiquitous now through wireless devices. Mobile search will be huge, but it comes down to wireless access, high speed access and standardization. There are a lot of technical and user adoption sticking points on mobile. But when you look at local and mobile working together, with GPS-enabled devices, you have this perfect storm: a convergence of usability, advertising opportunity and technology that makes sense because it makes our lives better. Your mobile device will become, over the next 10 years, your computing device of choice. That’s what you’re going to use for most of your interaction with online. It won’t be a box tied to a desk. There’s a very bright future for search ahead when you start looking at it in its role as this glue that holds all your online activity together. The act of searching is the way we link our intent with the content that’s out there. That’s why the Googles and the Yahoos and the Microsofts of the world are so well-positioned to drive Web 2.0, and whatever evolves after that, because that fundamental act of searching, that fundamental act of connecting what’s in our head with what’s out there—whether it be video, audio, or [another] format—they’re in charge of that connection.

BtoB: What are the challenges for b-to-b marketers doing search marketing?

Hotchkiss: One thing that’s common in b-to-b that is a bit of a challenge when it comes to search is [that] search grew up as a direct response channel. Search grew up as, “If someone is searching for this, I will assume they are ready to buy whatever that is, so I will plan my strategy and my entire campaign around generating a sale.”

But search’s sweet spot is actually people doing research for higher consideration purchases. You go out, you interact with a search engine, you start building your consideration set, you find vendors, you define the criteria you’re going to judge your decision by—you do all these things.

The other challenge in b-to-b is it is unlike a b-to-c decision, where one consumer goes through all the phases themself.

With b-to-b, especially with larger purchases, there tend to be multiple people filling those roles and moving in and out of the equation. Those are the two big challenges for the b-to-b marketer. It’s a research type interaction—it’s a lead gen, not a sale—so you have to understand the value of that lead when it comes to you somewhere in your development pipeline and have the mechanism to nurture it and continue to let that lead grow and become more engaged with you as a vendor. [Also] in a lot of cases, the person who first searches and comes to your site is not the person who’s ultimately going to sign the check. There’s a gathering of information and transference of information that has to happen, and that’s tough because what b-to-b marketers want is someone to pick up the phone and call them so they can control the process, so they can educate the prospect. What the Web has done is empowered us to do our own research.

We don’t want to initiate contact with a vendor before we’re ready. You’ve got b-to-b marketers driving to get someone to pick up a phone and you’ve got the customers on the other side saying, “No, I just want to check out your Web site. I’m a month and a half away from talking to anyone at your company.” It’s trying to figure out how search fills that hole in the middle and how your online properties can effectively meet the needs of that person who’s looking for information and eventually nurture that into a prospect who is ready to initiate contact with the vendor.

BtoB: Are any b-to-b marketers anywhere near that stage?

Hotchkiss: They’ve gotten 100% better in the last year or two. A lot of b-to-bs have moved into search more seriously, and I think they’ve started to test it. And the testing cycles have shown, if they’re testing their landing pages, they’re starting to understand they can’t just put their toll-free number on that landing page. They’ve got to seed it with some white paper downloads or some other things. They’ve become much more savvy in how customers like to develop those relationships. They’ve learned by trial and error. I’ve seen a fairly significant difference with the smartest of the b-to-b marketers. I’m seeing landing pages now that are very specific to what someone is looking for, I’m seeing Web sites that are persuasive pipelines that leave the buyer in control—and that’s a very critical element. The buyer has to be in control. All you can do is lay a path and persuade them to walk down that path. It’s really about understanding their intent when they come to the site and giving them what they are looking for.

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