Is Your SEM Focus Too Conservative?

In the evolutionary struggle for business survival, it’s vital to adapt.

“If all you do at work is hope to survive, your day can’t be much fun.”

In the underappreciated “Survival Is Not Enough: Why Smart Companies Abandon Worry and Embrace Change,” Seth Godin expounds on the concept of the “winning formula” that companies typically rely on to achieve their dominant positions. In the evolutionary struggle for business survival, it’s vital to adapt. Sometimes, what is seen as an advantage in the corporate world – a protected market, a narrow focus – can slowly morph into habits of conservatism. The rituals of celebrating and defending past victories supersede the seeking attitude that led to victory in the first place. Individual practitioners, too, can become victims of overreliance on a narrow winning strategy.

The range of options for branching out can seem daunting. Every year, haven’t many of us ignored the cutting-edge-sounding pronouncements promulgated from the pulpits of preening prophets? The admonitions about “the year of mobile,” the jargon about “RTB,” and indecipherable, futuristic, privacy-violating attribution models? And haven’t we, in hindsight, often profited from putting the blinkers on and blocking out what “other people do”?

If we have, arguably we’re just lucky. And probably, we’ve been more ahead of the curve than many others. The trick is recognizing when you’re in danger of turning into evolutionary roadkill. When you’re busy defending valuable turf, it gets harder and harder to be self-aware.

How much new ground should we try to break at any given time? The spectrum is vast. At the upcoming SES San Francisco Conference, at one end of the spectrum of audacity in the pursuit of campaign perfection, we see a session called “Advanced Channel Sequencing.” Are you ready to tackle this brave new world? At the least ambitious side of the continuum is Google’s sponsored session, “Supercharging AdWords Campaigns With Profit-Maximizing Strategies” – a welcome if belated entry from the PPC playbook of a decade ago. Somewhere in the middle, I think, lies a session like “Campaign Automation: Sensible Strategies, Extreme Results,” where Steve Hammer and yours truly will attempt to encourage advertisers to use more of the automation techniques they know they should be using to improve results, but have all too often been putting off.

Looking for “quick wins,” as conference panels and trade mag articles often promise? What about the kind of win that is both quick and sustained: the act of saying “yes” to an emerging standard, rather than fighting it? Lurking in many companies – especially some of the largest – are self-styled “rebels” (in fact, conservatives) who refuse to adopt powerful new techniques on the grounds that they are protecting their employer’s privacy, budget, etc. Often, these are the companies that are steadily losing ground without knowing it.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

It’s nearly comical to look back on the history of opportunity adoption in our industry. In each case, anywhere from a vocal minority to a solid majority of practitioners in the field all but chained themselves to the proverbial redwood tree, refusing to go along. “I’ll never use Google for analytics! PPC makes sense, but an ad network? Image ads? Google has totally lost its focus and integrity! No thanks…”

Remember when AdSense rolled out in 2003? Build it cheap, tacky, and fast…learn, iterate, and dominate. That was Google’s approach. The slapdash initiative was overseen by Susan Wojcicki. She’s still there…as SVP, Google Advertising. Needless to say, so is AdSense, along with a gigantic display advertising edifice that Google has built around and on top of it.

Baked-by-Google display advertising didn’t just run into casual opposition for its execution. Many in the industry decried the whole thing; it was the end of the Berners-Lee era of web “purity.” If monetizing through PPC was bad enough, then this “other advertising” was surely a sign of the imminent downfall of civilization.

The Universe, and Beyond!

A senior Google executive once denied it when I asked if Google had any interest in providing conversion tracking or analytics alongside its advertising program. She leaned in and said: “It’s Google’s position that third parties are best suited to providing those kinds of tools,” no doubt believing it at the time. For some reason, we always acted surprised when Google developed something far wider in scope than its initial search engine mandate…like, say, email, a browser, a social network, broadband, cameras mounted on bicycles, or…an operating system?

By now, we should be used to the idea that we’ll have to keep up.

Trust me: I’m like you. I probably went around telling people I’d never be bothered with Google+, either personally or professionally. Sort of like the way Seth Godin refuses to be on Twitter. Wishful thinking.

Out of Touch?

How convenient it would be if the online visibility playing field were frozen in time. Many appear to believe it was! Many casual practitioners bit so hard on Google’s official, non-evil PR spin from years gone by, that they’ve still failed to grasp just how fluid Google’s business mindset is today. For example, many generalists in the field have it fixed in their minds that search results (and some PPC) are the purview of Google, and display advertising is something that happens somewhere else…you know, with traditional agencies and those “big display advertising companies.”

Sigh. When it comes to display ads: Google is the biggest. Third-party networks and exchanges, while important, aren’t going to dominate (though they’re currently doing great in mobile). Current projections for 2015 have ad revenue shares being dominated by top publishers; in order: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, Microsoft, and AOL.

Even now, some folks will act surprised that you can upload image creative into AdWords instantly for purposes of advertising in the Display Network. Indeed, Google supports many file types, including Flash, along with a shocking array of image ad sizes.

Keeping up is a relative measure. And there’s a lot to keep up with. Many aren’t. In the display realm, for example, we’re no longer restricted to the narrow publisher-based targeting straitjacket; behavioral offerings abound. Someone coming to the table with an idea for a high-CPM, publisher-centric campaign with weak creative primarily in the oldest ad formats should rightly be received as out of touch. Someone dismissing display as a performance medium because the above is her narrow definition of display is similarly out of step.

The full array of Google advertising options now requires a whole website broken into sections; it used to be a relatively simple page called Google Ad Innovations.

Whether it’s from Google or not, we have a lot on our plates to digest. A miniscule sample:

  • Ad extensions like Sitelinks (now available at the ad group level) and Seller Rating Extensions.
  • Interesting new forms of behavioral marketing, such as Remarketing Lists for Search Ads and big-data-driven similar audiences.
  • A proliferation of social networks with multi-billion dollar valuations either pre- or post-IPO, that you’ll be able to buy tons of media on soon – and a need to explore automation tools like HootSuite to master both the “paid and unpaid” sides of those platforms.
  • Google’s strident and company-betting response to all the above, in the form of Google+. As a standalone startup, it would probably be worth an IPO valuation in the multiple billions. You have yet to buy a single ad on it (because you can’t), yet in four years we’ll probably see revenue growth patterns for Google+ rivaling Twitter’s.
  • Comparison Ads (limited beta).
  • A completely new PPC architecture called Enhanced Campaigns. I’m already bidding accurately for clients on a state-by-state, or country-by-country basis. Are you?
  • An increasing array of basic settings, including dizzying choices in how to bid alone.

This puts pressure on all of us, but as Billy Joel said, you’re just like everybody else. Pressure’s something you have to learn to face.

The good news, for those willing to up their games, is that the gap between amateurs and pros in this game is widening. Few solo individuals can keep on top of all these techniques or maintain a repertoire of best practices, do’s, and don’ts. Non-siloed agency expertise is more important than ever.

So what new initiative should you adopt next? Of course, I can’t tell you. But there are plenty of big ideas even in the short list above.

“Quick Wins” vs. Far-Reaching Strategy Decisions

Quick wins? The most important gains will come from shutting off your inner VP-of-naysaying and getting down to the task of jumping on opportunities when they’re ripe. That kind of win is both quick and sustained.

None of us like our cheese moved. But be careful what you wish against. There’s not much room in this game for “refusing to play.” While we might not embrace every change in the moment, we should probably remember that a lot of this is what we signed up for in the first place: the triumph of relevant, “native” paid messages in a climate of accountability, contextual sharing, scalability, data, and rapid insight.

The dollars are finally shifting in earnest to the digital realm, and you’ve been here all along, awaiting this day. What’s next?

Originally posted on ClickZ – Is Your SEM Focus Too Conservative? Questioning Your Winning Formula