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Archive for May, 2012

Top 5 Worst Practices in Paid Search

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

There is a saying in advertising: “Clients change agencies like they change {keyword: socks or underwear}.”

The reality is a little less volatile, given that familiarity and relationships often prevail in business, usually for the right reasons.

A better analogy – when things are going absolutely awry – is tectonic plates crunching together, or ice caps melting in the North: disaster may not happen today or tomorrow, but there is a certain inevitability to the outcome. When service levels and performance levels remain low for an extended period of time, eventually clients shop around and make the switch.

If you study the switching activity, there’s a remarkable consistency to clients’ fundamental beefs with their existing agencies. I’ll review five big ones here.

No one’s perfect, so this isn’t about nitpicking. I happen to think that service providers generally over-deliver in many subtle ways in this impersonal world. The best act like linchpins – becoming part of the family, and waking up in the night thinking about account performance and strategies. Long-term relationships have important roles to play in business performance.

From direct observation as well as anecdotal evidence, here are five acutely unacceptable practices; reasons clients often give for switching from their “worst-practices” PPC service provider.

  1. The client doesn’t get to own their own account. This one is actually often more of a symptom of a low-service level rather than a direct cause of contention. When clients get a nagging feeling they could be doing better, and want to have a look inside their accounts, that’s when the trouble starts. They’re not allowed in. Turns out they aren’t going to get access to their account, ever. The agency now owns much of the client’s critical business data.I can understand why some agencies have cooked up this model. It prevents clients from free riding; if they want to take the campaign in-house prematurely, for example, they’ll have to go it alone, without the campaigns built and tested by the agency. But the problem with this model is that it lowers the overall level of trust, collaboration, and ultimately, account performance.

    The best antidote to this is simply a contract that includes a clause stating the account data is the client’s intellectual property. And, of course, the client – not the agency – owns the root account credentials.

    Regardless of who owns what, business relationships typically won’t work unless there’s a climate of mutual trust.

  2. Extreme incompetence (display network). When I read “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb, I was convinced that rare and cataclysmic “black swan events” were more the purview of the financial markets – especially bets on complex derivatives – than anything that could happen inside an advertising auction. Unfortunately, some campaign managers find a way to create them in spite of the many safety mechanisms and optimization methods available to them. What’s the point of detailed optimization, frequent meetings, and meticulously prepared reports if something like 25 percent of the spend gets chewed up on boneheaded experiments or simple lack of knowledge of how these complex systems work?The display networks (such as the Automatic Placements you can run in Google AdWords campaigns) are increasingly impressive in terms of potential performance. But they won’t discern for you if the list of matching publishers is creating inappropriate leads for your software download, from countries and demographics that are more into gaming and hacks than corporate security solutions. There are so many ins and outs to the network these days, that it takes experience to address it properly. A classic mistake is to bid low because it’s “safer.” Low bids typically match you up with low-quality publishers who, amazingly, manage to deliver tons of useless traffic.
  3. Extreme incompetence (keyword intent). Many agencies come from a “media buy” background and are more than willing to try boneheaded keyword experiments just to address a big swath of imaginary potential customers. Whoops, in many cases the keyword is very specific to something entirely different the user wants, such as something related to an enormously popular competitor’s brand name (something our client spotted its sister company doing last week through a clueless campaign manager, wasting $20,000 on a “fun experiment” in two days). Whoops, your landing page is so irrelevant it literally offends people. The bounce rate is through the roof. Quality scores plummet. The wasted funds on a single keyword could have paid for several months’ worth of good service from a top-drawer manager.
  4. Outsourcing to Google. Google provides great resources. By consulting Google as one professional to another, an advertiser, agency, or manager can walk away with potential insights and support to apply to the overall effort. Don’t just take Google’s word for it, though. Shouldn’t this be obvious? Try this: enable the column for effective CPM in the AdWords reporting. Then try to imagine how Google feels about that number. Does Google cringe when you figure out how to get it lower, for the same quality of traffic? Is Google high-fiving when it’s sky-high; too high? You should always be aiming for KPIs that are either directly or indirectly related to ROI. Googlers may talk about your ROI to be polite, but it doesn’t really affect them or Google. What affects them is average CPMs on Google Search across all keywords, across all countries, across all users. By and large, Google isn’t going to be upset if you take its half-baked optimization suggestions and wind up overpaying for clicks. Sure, Google wants you to be happy, but as a strong second option, it’ll take “blissfully ignorant.” A PPC practitioner that is too deferential to Google – especially where it comes to deciding what traffic you buy, and how – is a practitioner you should fire.
  5. Just a white label, not a dedicated marketing agency. Trusted brands in industries like web hosting naturally have call centers, recurring billing systems, and people who can sound vaguely technical enough that they’re on top of your account. They can facelessly send you a pretty-looking automated report. But they probably commit one or more of the above worst practices, particularly No. 1. If you don’t get to work with an identifiable professional who works at an actual marketing agency that specializes in SEM, then all you’re left with is a call center, a recurring bill, a few buzzwords, and a report that you can’t put much faith in. And don’t be fooled if the company is “AdWords Certified” or any other type of certified. While they may be indicative of some level of commitment and a modicum of skill, these certifications amount to little more than studying for and writing relatively easy exams. They say little about the track record for real-world optimization, strategy, and commitment to long-term client service.
This column originally appeared at ClickZ on Dec. 2, 2011. Reprinted by permission.

Auction Insights: A ‘Googley’ Take on Competitive Keyword Intelligence

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Advertisers being the curious, hypercompetitive lot they are, many of them can’t resist typing in “their” search keywords to see where they stack up visually against the competition. The problem is, that can be both time-consuming and misleading.

To feed this desire, tool makers provide similar functionality at scale, offering competitive intelligence reports by keyword or by competitor URL. The problem with that is, it generates a lot of automated queries to Google. Also, some of the reports are long on information but short on insight.

What is the point of this type of competitive intelligence? There can be many uses. In some cases, the idea is to discover all the keywords your competitors are advertising on. That might help you fill gaps.

In other cases it’s just a general question: who am I up against? What are they doing? How do we stack up, at least when it comes to appearing on the page for similar queries?

Perhaps to dissuade advertisers from using brute force methods to get the latter information, Google has rolled out a report called Auction Insights. In AdWords, the opportunity starts with a little bar chart icon next to some keywords. For higher volume or otherwise significant keywords, you can call up a full report of the advertisers who might oppose you on that keyword, sorted by impression share. From here, the key competitive stats provided for each competitor URL are: overlap rate, position above rate, and top of page rate.

Along with the “who’s who,” the specific stats give you a real sense that each keyword is different for you in terms of the universe of advertisers who might also show up when you do. Not all are advertising on the exact same keyword as you; they may be coming in through more general or more specific variants. Some are doing well, others poorly. It’s not easy to tell 100%, but experienced advertisers can gain from these reports an appreciation of who is really aggressive, who is confused, and who is just along for the ride.

The overlap rate is the percentage of times the other advertiser showed up when you did when this keyword triggered an ad for you. That in itself is a reminder that the auction is dynamic and personalized, budgets vary, and Quality Scores determine not only position on the page, but eligibility.

Position above rate is how often that other advertiser showed up higher than you on the page.

Top of page rate is how often the advertiser (and you) showed up in one of the premium slots above the search results, at the top of the page.

The report also indicates impression share and average ad position.






There is no typical keyword. That being said, going through a number of reports shows that in almost every case, and I mean very close to 100% of cases, even a very committed and aggressive advertiser will come in below 100% impression share, and will have cases where they’re surpassed on the page by other advertisers, or where they don’t make it to “top of page” or premium position.

The exceptions are certainly interesting! One very aggressive advertiser we work with has maintained an average ad position of 1.0 for a certain keyword, by design. The reports help deepen our understanding of what’s going on, and ideally they’d help us prove to the client that we’re really up there at all times.

From these new reports, we can see at a quick glance the other proof of the advertiser’s omnipresence (and almost always, dominance) on the page for that keyword: the impression share is at 100%, and nearly no competitor shows any “position above” rate at all. Two competitors do: at 0.05% and 0.02% respectively. Sure enough, it was those times when we got a call from the client, who does indeed type that query into Google daily just to make sure.

Will these reports dissuade advertisers from using third party services, or having their nephew type in queries all day long? Probably not. But they do provide interesting insights, and they’re very convenient to access.

A couple of additional takeaways:

  • Some advertisers appear to behave bizarrely, and the reports can provide further confirmation of that. For example, some advertisers are at the top of the page relatively often, but have a low impression share. Do they bid very high, but sporadically? Do they bid very high on even quite peripheral or broad queries, such that their query-specific Quality Scores vary wildly from search to search and from searcher to searcher? Large consumer packaged goods companies are trying to figure out the space, for example.
  • Government organizations and so forth behave a bit like that. While the other advertisers seem to rank on these metrics in the order reflected by their economic interest in certain keywords, their business models, etc., other types of advertisers “sprinkle money around” in order to raise awareness in a random fashion. Their budgets aren’t big enough to have high impression shares or high ad positions most of the time, but they get in there just enough to disrupt the auction and drive up prices for anyone near them in the auction. In general, advertisers who don’t measure exhibit head-scratching behavior and should maybe consider switching everything over to display. :)
  • Frequent sightings of Amazon, Wal-Mart, etc. shouldn’t be a surprise, but companies like,, and so on, are all over the place. Local listings providers are also doing the same, focusing on popular local search categories so they can support their own advertisers. The low level, look-the-other-way click arbitrage is back, and is part of the overall reason Google has seen declining aggregate CPC’s. Google is making more money overall by letting the “info” sites play in areas they had been stricter about in the past. But on a number of those queries they must be willing to take lower CPC’s.
  • Speaking of click arbitrage and related business models, these reports have the effect of “outing” certain companies that pretend to be in the business of providing services or content, but for whom a large percentage of their revenues probably come from advertising. Why would Marketing Company X be advertising on keywords for certain cancer treatments, anyway? A hybrid business model that marries low-margin, commodity services with a high-margin, gray-area strategy of buying cheap clicks on Google can look pretty good on the surface, which is why one such company currently trades publicly at a valuation of $250 million. Don’t try this at home.
  • Put that insight together with the possibility that one of the three components of keyword Quality Score — ad relevance — can be tuned on a dime, based in part on shifting definitions of Quality vis-a-vis Display URL (hypothetically, a handy way of indirectly green-lighting or red-lighting ‘an entire advertiser’ while still using a ‘formula’) — and you can see how Google might potentially be able to subtly offer Quality Score help in exchange for certain quid pro quos. For some arbitrageurs and affiliates, it’s “red light” all the way, yet for others, it’s “green light,” or at least yellow enough to allow them to show up millions of times on marginal queries across all sorts of keywords. Am I barking up the wrong tree? Well, just visualize me in Columbo’s trench coat wearing a tinfoil hat, then. Or invent visions of your own.

This Week in Narcissism

Monday, May 14th, 2012

If you ever make the mistake, as I recently did, of reading Twenge and Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement, you’ll have more than a few “whoa! that’s scary!” moments, when you begin recognizing vivid examples of the shift they’ve documented as they happen in slow motion in day-to-day life. Scary, as in “they really got that right.”

This study of the rise in narcissistic qualities in the general (especially, youth) population is no casual observation. The authors actually document rises in self-reported and externally-evaluated scores of clinical narcissism. On many counts, those numbers have been rising for nearly 30 years. There is an interesting dip that occurred in one of the graphs; in my generation (for a brief moment in time in the late 1980′s), for about two years college-age students actually reversed the trend. But then the inexorable rise continued.

Not everyone is clinically narcissistic today. But more people than ever believe that utter self-belief and lack of regard for others is “normal” behavior.

The “originating” root of the trend is the self-esteem movement, which you can trace all the way back to the 1970′s. By the 1990′s, over-the-top efforts to boost self-esteem at every turn had infected child-rearing and education at all levels.

An accelerator of that trend seems to be social media. Many people who get caught up in the exercise of preening and bragging in social media venues appear to lose all sense of perspective.

According to the authors, extreme narcissists take on personas like “school bully.” These bullies don’t lack self-esteem; their problem is that they have too much of it, and too little regard for others. In today’s environment — whether in real school incidents or relentless messages portrayed in pop culture — it’s well documented that bullies like this can actually be the object of pity because they don’t have enough self-esteem. The prescription to handle someone who is terrorizing others? Coddle them and help them to work on gaining even more self-esteem, so the situation can normalize itself. Prop them up just a bit more, and they might stop trashing others! Instead, the opposite is likely to happen. They love themselves so much, their sense of entitlement only grows.

Last week, a so-called photographer from Arkansas, Meagen Kunert, was exposed for ripping off the wedding photos of pro photographer Sean McGrath of Saint John, NB, Canada. In addition to passing off McGrath’s photos as her own, she added insult to injury by creating fake personas and narratives connected with people in the wedding party. The real people involved felt creeped out by the whole turn of events.

After the firestorm went viral and global, Kunert had no choice but to apologize for what she’d done. She added, though, that she felt driven to it by the intense pressures of competing out there. In other words, a few words of apology were barely out of her mouth when she began cooking up a rationalization… one that ended in “It’s sad.” The full quote: “The photography industry has come to the point where you feel like you have to take other peoples’ work just to compete and to feel better about yourself. … It’s sad.”

Just another exemplar in the long line of cases that back up Twenge and Campbell’s thesis: not only has the self-esteem movement (accelerated by social media) flown out of control, millions of people are being given blatantly misguided ideas every day about what self-esteem is, and how to achieve it… and a warped model that wrongly assumes that good things spring from developing self-esteem unattached to any basis.

Kunert’s problem wasn’t pressure or some gap in how she felt about herself, it was an unwillingness to take the needed steps to accomplishment. It certainly seems like a competitive world when you mentally compare yourself to people who have already reached the top rungs in your field. It’s less insanely pressurizing when you focus on bottom-rung stuff like customers, working hard, strategy, and caring about those around you.

In other news… I’m betting there is no nice, shiny, flattering explanation to explain multibillionaire Eduardo Saverin renouncing his US citizenship in order to avoid a large tax bill. The press have been supplied with one and are willing to give it equal time: he has a family history of moving to escape kidnapping by “ransom gangs,” so why maintain U.S. citizenship now, since that might have been a reason to move on from the U.S. to Singapore?

Some are calling such wealthy tax evaders the “stateless rich,” but is a life led with half that wealth, with some sense of roots that come with full and conscious citizenship, in fact much richer?

The alternative explanation to the “afraid of kidnapping” theme, then, is that Mr. Saverin is a U.S. citizen when it is convenient to him, and that his primary fear is of petty pickpockets: namely, that his multiple billions will shrink slightly. Only Mr. Saverin knows the real truth.

Did the boss’s ad creative win? Don Draper can’t leave your idea in a cab anymore

Monday, May 14th, 2012

In Mad Men Episode 509, “Dark Shadows,” Don longs to flex his old creative muscles on an account being worked on by the junior phenom, Ginsberg. In the review meetings for the Sno-Cone account, Don slips his “devil” ad concept into the mix. The team agrees that both Don’s idea and Ginsberg’s lighter “snowball in the face” campaign are both strong ideas. It’s agreed that the firm will bring both ideas in to pitch the client.

Don’s idea wins because he leaves Ginsberg’s creative in the cab, so they only pitch Don’s idea. The client buys.

Don should have felt vindicated even if his idea had lost in the end, because it had come roughly tied for first with Ginsberg’s idea in the feedback from his colleagues (some of whom didn’t fully know of Don’s involvement). Sure, it’s Ginsberg’s job to come up with the creative, but it’s equally important that Don have self-respect and that his best people respect him for more than just his past accomplishments. Having current “chops” is a bonus; it’s the difference between merely living well and being good. (Oh, not all kinds of good. Don doesn’t necessarily qualify as good, though arguably he’s less evil than some of those around him, in key situations. Unquestionably, and to his great relief, he’s still good at this.)

In the hyper-testing world of real-time-rotated ad testing that we live in, we can go one better, of course.

The boss can get a hankering to see if her ad will win. She can slip it into the mix, in a fair and even rotation. If it wins, it wins. The victory should be sweeter because there’s no leaving the other ads in the cab.

Now I’m in the business of supporting my team — not competing with them. But a little healthy competition is good for any agency, whether it self-identifies as “creative,” “data-driven,” or both.

And if my ads can’t win some of the time (or even most of the time), then Houston, we’ve got a problem. It’ll be time to don the weird slippers and sit in the lobby reading the paper… or spend more time at the country club. When that happens, you’ll be the first to know.

Unraveling Google’s New Three-Pronged Quality Score Reporting

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Unlike the average American 15-year-old, AdWords advertisers now have definitive proof that they can’t all be above average. This comes in the form of Google’s new breakdown format for keyword quality score reporting, by Expected CTR, Ad Creative, and Landing Page Quality.

Most advertisers already know that Quality Score (which determines ad rank and eligibility in the auction, and ultimately, heavily influences CPC’s and ROI) derives from CTR and “other relevancy factors.” This new disclosure shows that Google continues to refine the formula to help some advertisers get their “fair rank,” and to deter others from showing ads. They’re doing this by incorporating more and more data about ad creative and landing page quality. Today, Jonathan Alferness, Director, Product Management, on Google’s ads quality team, reminded me that these particular factors have been increasingly involved since a major round of updates in 2011. Thus, the additional disclosure at this stage is a way of giving advertisers some useful insight on top of an aggregate score number like 4 or 7.

When this disclosure was announced on April 24, there weren’t many insightful comments around the industry, with the unsurprising exception of George Michie, who as you can see from his post was roughly over the moon about the new info.

I wasn’t completely sure I understood the exact implications of the new reporting, so today I finally caught up with Jonathan to get the Googler’s deeper dive on what the headings mean.










Expected CTR is a measure of your CTR relative to other advertisers you’ll be duking it out with over the same keyword queries. If it’s below average, you’re probably targeting more broadly than others are in the auctions you will be entering against other advertisers, so you may be willing to accept a lower ROI (or bid lower, for less volume). If it’s above average, it’s quite possible that your ROI here will be benefiting from pursuing a strategy of granularity in your account structure (for example). This one has been the core of the Quality Score formula for years, but the additional disclosure is a helpful reminder that the measure is relative. You will do OK on some keywords even if your CTR looks low on an absolute basis, as long as you’re doing as well as other advertisers are. For some queries, consumers simply aren’t in the mood to click on ads. But Google will still show some ads.

Ad relevance, according to the loose description given to me by Jonathan Alferness, measures “how well the creative matches the keyword.” So what does this mean, exactly? How does Google determine this? They can’t and won’t disclose the secret sauce, but examples can help. What if there is nothing wrong with an ad, and users didn’t seem particularly dissatisfied or misled by it, but they weren’t all that likely to click on ads in that particular keyword space in general? Google wants to refine the process to rescue such keywords from “low Quality Score hell,” (my words, not Google’s) so that despite low CTR’s, advertisers may continue to serve ads despite a certain pattern of user response that does not scream “I’m buying today”. The ad is relevant and the ad does not bother people.

Some ad creative is in fact annoying to users despite some of its metrics being OK from the standpoint of the keyword CTR as well as the post-click engagement numbers. I still have trouble understanding how an ad could be deemed less relevant than it ought to be (below average), while the expected CTR numbers *and* the landing page quality numbers come in as average… unless Google has decided that something called ad relevance is intrinsically a good thing separate from both CTR’s and post-click engagement numbers like bounce rates and other elements of poor user experiences that cannot be measured with (eg.) bounce rates alone. Google may be willing to down-rank or show less often ads that are in some sense ‘problem ads’ or ‘spammy ads’ even if they do not get flagged as such by other more conventional measures of spamminess. Too many ads from Mars when the searcher is from Venus leads to an overall feeling of clutter on the page. Shining up the ‘Quality’ of the ads portion of the search results page overall could be an important part of maintaining user trust not only in any given ad, but importantly, trust and respect that the ads portion is worth looking at and represents a high standard of communications.

In other words, regardless of how it is achieved, Google appears to believe in a higher-order concept of relevance, independent of specific measures like CTR. Obvious means of achieving that might be to simply mirror some of the user’s keywords in body copy, etc. But less obvious might be: users feel funny about getting your brand offer with the brand name in the headline (say), when they have explicitly searched for information about comparison charts, or “best” something. To “spam” them (even slightly), the formula is going to ask you to either pay more, or to alter both your landing page and ad copy. Alter one without altering the other, and you’ll likely be deemed less relevant either way. There is going to be less of a free lunch even when you somehow manage to maintain a decent CTR. And if all advertisers do is change their ad copy slightly to annoy users less, that might be good enough for Google — not necessarily because one ad gets clicked more, but also because minimizing the appearance of some kinds of ads means that the ad space overall gets clicked more and respected more over time.

It could be other things, too. If Google knows and shows you that your Expected CTR is above average, but your ad creative is only average, that could be telling you that Google knows that your CTR will probably go even higher if you take steps to match the ad creative more closely to the actual keyword. You’re doing “well,” (possibly just due to elements like the granularity of your targeting or the appearance of your brand name in the Display URL), but Google knows that the odds are you aren’t doing as well as you could specifically with the ad creative. By trying ads with “instant buffalo wings” specifically in the ad headline for the query “instant buffalo wings” where currently your headline is “hot spicy wings,” you might generate even better user response — primarily in terms of CTR, but possibly in terms of response right through the buying funnel. Does Google benefit? Yes. Will you? Maybe.

Landing page quality: When this is below average, it could mean any number of things, more than I have space to go into here. In any case, this should put to rest the majority of people’s questions about whether their landing page is the source of their Quality Score woes. It either is, or it isn’t, and this new reporting will say as much. It won’t tell you anything about what is wrong, how serious the problem is, etc. But in all cases it will reinforce the point that this game is largely about…

User expectations.

Many have heard of the concept of information scent. This new Quality Score reporting just reinforces the idea that optimizing a PPC account revolves largely around removing that puzzled state that slightly-off advertising gives to a searcher. The more laser-perfect your sequence from keyword query and campaign organization, to ad copy, to landing page, and beyond — in relation to the user’s expectations and intent — the better you do.

Why does Google “get involved” to this degree rather than letting advertisers figure it out? Broadly speaking, it’s to help them learn this process on their own without actually privileging the interests of one advertiser over another. And broadly speaking, it’s to continue to address and weed out any sense of “spamminess” in the ads that stems from situations as benign as advertisers not thinking through different meanings for keywords, throwing too many keywords into an ad group assuming that they are all worth “a try” because the keyword tool said they were popular, etc.

Example: Competitor Words

There are some important specific cases, though, that illustrate the principles acutely. One of the main ones is the common practice (largely legal in most jurisdictions) of showing your ads when a user types a competitor’s name as their search. Think of three common scenarios here:

1. You’re advertising on your own brand name, and using the ad unit (including appropriate extensions) to extend your grip on screen real estate, test specific offers, etc. Here, your expected CTR relative to other advertisers will be way above average. Your ad relevance will also be well above average because you alone have the luxury of using your trademark in ad copy. And your landing page quality will likely be above average as well, because perhaps you are a respected brand name. It should at least be average. Put the three components together, and your Quality Score is often a solid 10/10 and virtually no one can dislodge you from top spot. You may be getting your clicks here for single-digit pennies per.

2. You’re advertising on a competitor’s brand name… and it is not going well. Previously, there was some mystery as to how this process worked. Your CTR might not be terrible, and yet your Quality Score keeps dropping so low that your eligibility is in the toilet and your CPC’s become prohibitive. But relative to the brand, your CTR is definitely not great. And your ad copy isn’t helping, because you don’t have the luxury of including the searcher’s keyword — the competitor’s name — in your ad copy. (It isn’t legal or allowed by Google and/or in most jurisdictions.) Remember, even on top of normal CTR’s, you could be dinged for the intrinsic lack of relevance of such an ad. And finally, users tend to get dissatisfied when they visit landing pages on ads for the other guy’s brand. Not always, but insofar as many users are ticked off, the formula will reflect that, too. That explains why most times, it’s not feasible to advertise on “competitor words,” and why that can all be done algorithmically to embrace far-reaching principles. It’s only a “cash grab” if you’re on the wrong end of it.

3. But sometimes, you can do just fine here. While you may take a slight hit on the ad relevance piece, what if your CTR’s are actually pretty high because your offer was pretty relevant, kind of cool, was thoughtful in challenging the supremacy of the leading brand, pointed to a helpful comparison chart, etc.? What if, furthermore, users actually liked and appreciated the landing page when they arrived? If and only if that’s the case, you might come in with Quality Scores in the 5-7 range, and thus be the exception that proves the rule: advertising on competitor terms is something that you must do with great care.

Has this new disclosure helped me immediately in crafting better ads or weeding out keywords that shouldn’t be there? Not really, for two main reasons: (1) I already think that way, and (2) we’re still watching the ROI data most closely, using Quality Score as a learning tool.

And the new reports are confirming some hunches that I’ve been working with for some time. Since we’ve been doing this a long time, my colleagues and I generally understand when we should expect to pay a premium for overly broad targeting (or overlapping, sadly, with non-commercial intents on ambiguous keywords), and when we’re going to get a bonus for really drilling down and matching very specific keywords to tightly-written ads (thus “above average” expected CTR). The reporting will also provide us with insight as to how Google is working to “rescue” ads if they are above average in relevance; and can remind us when keywords are average or even above average in relation to expected CTR compared with other advertisers, despite the fact that some keywords must toil in an “organic SERP’s are better” keyword universe that most users would rather not click ads for. In short, we now have more insight into whether a keyword is “in a tough space” or whether it’s truly a case of “you suck”.

Market Quietly: Unsolicited Advice for Research in Motion’s New CMO

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Welcome, Frank Boulben, Research in Motion’s new CMO. You’re charged with making the Blackberry relevant again. No one expects you to succeed.

You’ll be surrounded by the din of detractors, media hacks, and a few people cheering you on. There’s a chance you’ll try to hit a home run when it would be so easy for RIM to get back on track by hitting singles and doubles.

My overarching hope is that you’ll see the importance of ignoring the deafening roar on all sides. That you’ll discover the power of marketing quietly. Of protecting your own company from mass market madness — and protecting your own customers from the same thing.

As I type this, I’m reminded of the brand American Apparel. I’m wearing a cotton cardigan made by same. Stylish, yes. Does it shout? No. Sure, American Apparel has frequently been in the press, as much for their “made in LA not in sweatshops” ethos to the lecherous behavior of the founder (and yes, plenty of stylish marketing).

Funnily enough, though, the clothes generally don’t shout. They’re “generic,” yet the cool kids sense you aren’t wearing a Hanes tee. As Naomi Klein might say – they have “no logo.” Yesterday I was out golfing [note to clients: it was 9 holes at twilight] when the wind started howling. Instead of official golf jacket / outerwear, I had an American Apparel thin sweatshirt (thick henley) in the bag. Put it on. Felt way less dorky than I would have in an Adidas shell to match my Adidas golf shirt. Functional, too. Great fit. Bold blue color. But no logo. No one told me how I had to use the product. It was my discovery. Hey, no one tells me what golf apparel I have to wear!

That saves me money, too. No need to shop in the golf shop and duplicate all the clothing I already have in my closet. It’s generic! You can use it for anything! (Even though it isn’t an unstylish kind of generic.)

To use the device analogy, many people are going to have one smartphone. They aren’t going to have a tablet or even an iPod. You weren’t off base when you released great Blackberries with good quality sound, better cameras, etc. — you do have a market if you keep releasing better and better ones.

Research in Motion should position and market its products quietly, like that. With quiet confidence that their fans are their fans. No silly contortions around the brand. Follow what the brand already is. Don’t graft imaginary personas over it. Let customers put themselves into the picture in their own way. Do you really think at this point that people need to have it explained to them that people come in all colors, all ages, multiple genders, etc.? That’s what I fear your next traditional ad agency is going to try to do.

Your product and your company never talked down to people in that way. Should your advertising?

Here are my three unsolicited pieces of advice, jumping off the theme of ‘Market Quietly’:

  • Forget the mass market. Serve, understand, and sell brilliantly — and quietly — to your existing customers. Understand your fans. Make them happy. Don’t mass market to them. Better yet, don’t mass market to anyone else, either, in a way that would turn off your existing core.
  • To do that, use the ‘database of intentions’ to recognize and respond to (and market to) that core group. You can save tens of millions of dollars, maybe hundreds of millions, by winding up the majority of the traditional advertising, packaging, and other “mass market” campaign work. For a fraction of the cost, you can effectively get your message out there to every single person that is doing a Blackberry-related search (and other super targeted online stuff). Display, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. Master every single one of these channels. Build out a respectful and accomplished team that does nothing but that. Stop wasting everyone’s time, and your company’s money, with top-down mass market ad campaigns from the 1980′s. Use whatever is left over to focus on new forms of PR and earned media etc. etc., yadda yadda yadda. Free publicity is great, too.
  • Leverage those communities and those massive amounts of signals from inquisitive customers to develop the products of the future.

Do all those things, and I’ll still be proud to answer my RIM phone on the golf course… though to be honest, I usually keep mine turned off. Golf types are like that. They also really don’t want to have to throw in the towel on RIM and switch to a (shudder) iPhone. Android? Can’t let Google take over everything. If you believe Apple and Google should take over everything, and that there is no fervent Blackberry fan base out there… or if you’d rather spend every morning reading the opinion pieces by ivory-tower journalists, wondering if your company is really populated by a bunch of clueless clowns or whatever… you might as well give up now.

At this point, with a powerful new OS and a global customer base still (somewhat) loyal to you, there is plenty to build on. And unlike the din in the press, in the real world fan base, people typing queries about your product as in the screen shot below, are simply interested and engaged in the nitty gritty details. [There's a lot more where that came from. Are you truly leveraging searcher intent? Are you building too many half-baked mass-market promo microsites, and not enough communities and resources?] They want to get on with their next phone purchase so they can get back to being quietly effective.

P.S. No need to take potshots at the other companies’ devices, calling them “play toys,” etc. We get it. Take the high road.

The Healthy Consolidation in the SEM Landscape

Friday, May 4th, 2012

For years, SEO companies and “rock stars” have whined that they don’t get the respect they deserve.

That’s been unsurprising, given that you trip over seven unethical SEO firms and two “cheesy borderline” SEO firms out of every group of ten. If only 10% of SEO firms are really “agencies” that adhere to some professional standards (including a degree of transparency, contemporary technology & practices, etc.), how can clients figure out what to do and who to hire?

It’s been a little better on the PPC side, but here too, it’s pretty easy to set up a “facsimile of the real agencies,” hoover leads in the door, and start billing for substandard work done by a mostly nonexistent organization. The tipoff is the About Us pages that launch right into an unverifiable jumble of information pulled from other agencies’ websites, never identifying the actual principals of the firm. And sorry, if you’re out on the highway in the desert somewhere in unit #4518 (a self-storage unit maybe?), if I’m a client you’re going to have to do more to convince me to sign up.

To briefly touch on the agency side of things and how it’s gotten better for clients… I do think it has, because somehow word of mouth is getting better and buyers are getting smarter. If they are hiring a large agency, they do that because of the safety factor. Probably you pay more for a bit less specialization and get less of some things, but most buyers don’t have time or enough luck to make it through the mysterious effort of somehow striking gold with a lone wolf practitioner who turns out to be up to the job in all facets.

In the middle are interactive agencies or SEM-focused agencies with known track records (like Page Zero Media, to toot our own horn here). Buyers know that there are actually just a handful of leaders running SEM-focused organizations with any depth, and that you can actually meet with them and talk with them at the major industry events (SES, SMX, etc., along with emerging dark horse events like Heroconf and the Acquisio User Summit – on the latter, get a load of who’s keynoting). Anyone who gets to know “PZ” team members like myself, Mona Elesseily, Dean Towers, Scott Perry, Dave Weber, etc., will know that many of us have been at this for 11 years now, and we’re training the next generation of obsessives as campaign complexity continues to challenge clients who would flounder if they tried to run them on their own. We’ve been around this long, and we’re going to be around next year and the year after that. For execution help, advice, audience building, and networking opportunities, we also partner with some of the most important entities in the industry; longstanding relationships with companies like Google, conferences like SES Toronto, companies like American Express OPEN, and vendors like Acquisio, matter to us and to our clients.

To look around the landscape (this post isn’t just about self-promotion but about B2B consumer protection, in the end), I’ve been more and more impressed by the trend represented by (for example) Blueglass, an interactive agency that was the product of several established groups coming together, plus the recruitment of some top talent that might have been considered “lone wolves” in their earlier work. It’s just easier for clients if they can get more of that in the same place, without worrying whether Rock Star X has a full plate for the next couple of months. In short, we’re seeing the  emergence of an agency landscape out of what used to be a bit of a mess. That leads to more professionalism, and more safety and long-term execution for quality clients.

There are quite a few others worth a mention, of course. And they don’t have to be huge. Look at Marty Weintraub’s group at AIMClear – they’re rockin’ it.

Let’s turn to the tool side.

There are a lot of disparate tools, platforms, and dashboards out there that many agencies and in-house practitioners alike use to automate, report, research, and generally excel. Despite all the wondrous innovation, though, the problem for the firm (let’s say it’s an agency) is chaos. It takes time and money to be constantly researching and testing out new tools from new vendors.

I mentioned this when writing three years ago about the bid management space. Although new companies have certainly emerged in marketing automation, it’s probably fair to say that a few names have really solidified their grip on different market segments. As two fairly close competitors in the past, it was probably healthy and good for customers that Acquisio acquired (haha, Acquisio made an acquisition) ClickEquations.

One thing I love about Acquisio is that I don’t have to jump out into another tool evaluation mode when my agency has new needs. In addition to core PPC reporting and automation features, they integrate third-party data (for example, through partnerships with The Trade Desk and GShift Labs), Facebook ads, and increasingly, more sophisticated needs like multi-channel attribution. There’s a huge learning curve with some of this, but the key is that the learning is within the same consistent environment and the service and support is coming from one team, not ten. Our team can expect to be using that environment next quarter, and the quarter after that. In that regard, it’s not so dissimilar from using tools from Google itself. You don’t have to be constantly relearning features and environments, and the fact that you’re not paying for ten vendors and administering multiple logins is a huge win as well.

That brings us to the recent home run for SEOmoz, long considered the gold standard in SEO tools. $18 million in high profile venture funding is a validation for their role in the industry and no doubt for their sound finances. But more than that, it provides incontrovertible proof that they are one of the few players with Momentum. For many buyers, including myself, the likelihood of shopping around and trying a whole bunch of competing tools goes down when I hear news like this. $18 million isn’t something SEOmoz needs to run its operation, but it’s a powerful signal that they intend to be around for awhile — indeed, that they will be something of a ‘hub’ that builds out more interesting functionality that transcends ‘mere SEO’ (hence their tinkering around with a name change to just ‘Moz’). And to take it to a personal level, once again… this is all happening because you and I know who Rand Fishkin is, know he’s always been a thought leader and a tireless builder of this product. Maybe you even know Gillian, or other members of his family. It matters to me that a vendor has the courage to stand up and be visible rather than toiling away in a self-storage unit by the highway in the desert with a generic ‘About’ page. I think it probably matters to you, too.

I first learned about Momentum (a book subtitled “How Companies Become Unstoppable Forces”) from Noel McMichael, who co-founded Marketleap, one of the first small SEM agencies that managed to exit with a decent (if far too low by current standards) acquisition price. Noel told me to read Momentum. He said it had been the most influential book in the building of his company. Rather than behave as lone wolves who are good at some things, Marketleap built a cohesive and fervent (if relatively small) agency to signal to clients that if they hired Marketleap, they were getting on board with a group that self-identified as a professional organization that would take a back seat to no one in terms of execution.

Momentum means everything to vendor choices. Companies from Microsoft to Salesforce have created empires based on some of the most visceral of B2B buyer instincts: no one wants to waste time adopting the solution that won’t be the “standard” next year, and the year after that. Buyers want consistent technology, not just the latest technology. They want support and service, and organizations that can support learning and networking opportunities.

Many clients are still outsmarting themselves by hiring flaky, unqualified firms in order to save a dollar or two, but it’s getting better. Smart buyers know that the landscape is not as chaotic as it looks. There are a relatively small number of reputable agencies and software platforms to pick from. Those are the ones you’re going to be hearing from again and again.


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