Paid Search Era Ushers in a Whole New Mind

Got math? Got stats? Think you’re golden? Think again.

One of the amazing qualities of paid search is its addictiveness. Once in the profession, people tend to stick around. Even CEOs of good-sized companies have been known to cling to the campaigns they initially set up, ceding the work to specialists only after colleagues and family members manage to wrest the mouse out of their hands.

We have a remarkable employee retention rate at our agency. While that’s probably due to the winning charm of the executive team, to say nothing of the luxurious pewter toilet paper holders down the hall, something else might be at work: paid search marketing is a stimulating, ever-changing puzzle. Word has it Google is considering re-releasing AdWords as an iPhone app simulation — no advertising account required. It vibrates when your Quality Score hits 10.

Rapid feedback to marketing experiments is certainly addictive, but it’s not all you get in paid search. And indeed, you won’t get it unless you handle a range of longer-term strategic elements with aplomb.

So, It’s About Math? Duh

Third-party accounts of the application of science to various professions have a curious quality about them. Have you noticed how uncritical they are about what science is? “Moneyball,” “Super Crunchers,” “Blink“…the narrative basically says we replace old superstitions by accepting the insights of more scientific people that come along to improve a profession. And these people are essentially mathematicians or statisticians of one form or another.

Got math? Got stats? You’re golden.

In a way, this is true. But it only scratches the surface. It’s a gee-whiz, numbers-are-important type of analysis brought to you by some compelling storytellers.

In our field, the result can be oversimplification, to say nothing of complacency. Got a “numbers person” on your team? You’ll be alright.

The profession is broken down into science versus non-science, math versus non-math. Don’t smell like math? You must be non-math. But wait! Things really aren’t that binary.

Reading the section of Ian Ayres’ “Super Crunchers” that actually dealt with paid search was a case in point. He briefly referred to a tiny sliver of the math we’ve all been crunching for years. He misapplied it and gave a weak example: one relating to the ad copy CTR (define) for his own book.

Make no mistake: we’re mired in a milieu where statistical feedback comes at you fast and furious. The complexity is astounding. But that’s true of anything that involves many variables, a competitive marketplace, and the use of your brain.

Wearing Multiple Hats

And what about that brain? Who, ultimately, can be good at paid search?

The answer is surprisingly complex.

All of the following can make paid search work better:

  • Smart people with strong statistical competencies.
  • Dedicated people who learn the key principles, and keep learning.
  • Good communicators who do a good job of assimilating client objectives, and reporting back.
  • Creative people who think around problems.
  • People who write winning copy.
  • Empathetic people who have a knack for customer needs.
  • Team players and leaders who can set priorities and keep large projects and teams on track.
  • Customers and their actions, as it’s their behavior that feeds our analytics and iterations.
  • Analytics software and those who create it.
  • Computers and algorithms.
  • Obsessed organizations that develop the right mix of all the above.
  • Greedy entrepreneurs who out-hustle the rest; for them it’s not a game, it’s a quest for gold.

Maybe You Should Find Another Job …

Who might be the worst at paid search?

  • People who are just flat-out lazy, hoping for a passive media buy.
  • Certain parties who always resist measurement, to avoid accountability at all costs.
  • Inconsistent workers or people who struggle with cognitive basics, who make errors, and may have “no rhyme nor reason” behind their actions.
  • People unwilling to subsume their egos to methodologies, data, and objectives.
  • People who tilt so far to the right-brain creative side of the spectrum that they believe every campaign must be a beautiful Picasso; people who like winning subjective “awards” for their brilliance.

Yes, it’s often — or even usually — about math. About reaching optimal outcomes, often by optimizing many small details to produce the most efficient spend and higher total profit. But we haven’t gotten anywhere by just stating as much. How do we act on that, find our unique contribution to the project, work with others, and build our organizations and technology supports appropriately?

You may be asking: is all of this overkill? How big is paid search anyway, that we should be considering the nature of cognition in connection with it?

First, AdWords. Tomorrow, the Advertising World?

It’s not tough to answer. Today, writers like Ian Ayres, Michael Lewis, Malcolm Gladwell, and their more obscure scientific counterparts, are considering how the nature of cognition and analysts’ use of large data sets affect every field from baseball to viniculture to driver safety to online dating. As the line blurs between the $50 billion spent annually on digital advertising to the much larger global advertising pie, fortunes will be won and lost in the process.

I have much more to say about the cognitive opportunities and traps that await us in the paid search game. Join me on December 9, 2009 at SES Chicago, for a session called Paid Search Brain Candy.

Originally posted on ClickZ –¬†Paid Search Era Ushers in a Whole New Mind