Breaking free of the SEM failure cycle

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Search engines put an extraordinarily powerful set of targeting technologies in the hands of marketers, but the mere provision of these tools does not guarantee they will be successfully operated. In fact, one can argue that any company who puts an untrained individual in charge of buying keywords through Google, Yahoo or Microsoft adCenter without thoroughly understanding the complexities, risks, and possible costs, is doing the equivalent of putting a chimpanzee in charge of a nuclear reactor.

The labor-intensive, detail-oriented aspect of search engine marketing is one of the most difficult concepts to get across to mainstream advertisers and their agencies. “How hard can it be?” these people ask (after a meeting with a search engine rep whose sole job is to make all the mind-bending minutia look easy). Thus begins the painful SEM failure cycle, which can take either a few months or a year to go through. The stages, listed in order, go like this:

1. Enthusiasm ("Amazing! We just set our budget, select our keywords, our geo, our demo, our daypart, and Google does the rest!")

2. Denial ("Our ROI's in the tank and we're losing market share: Let's get the search team on the first flight to an SES [search engine strategies] conference so they can figure out how to run this stuff").

3. Fantasy ("Our search people came back from the SES conference with this great new tool that will solve all our problems. Yay!")

4. Exasperation ("This stupid tool doesn't do anything we want it to do, so we've hired two new people to run our campaigns manually. Can we authorize another $10,000 in training expenses please?")

5. Panic ("We need an SEM agency we can drop this headache on — and fast!")

6. Betrayal ("The SEM agency we hired are idiots and charlatans. Find a new one!")

7. Defeat ("You know, maybe we're better off running newspaper ads.")

Of course, not every marketer falls victim to the SEM Failure Cycle. So how does one avoid its deadly clutches? First, by understanding from the outset how difficult it is to succeed at search these days. Unfortunately, the search engine reps won't stress this bitter fact, and there's no reason to expect them to, given that their job is to get your credit card and as much of your spend as possible.

If your business is in a highly competitive market (and whose isn't?) the search marketplace is already saturated with competitors. Before you buy a single keyword, make sure that your fundamental strategy is sound across all of your channels, and determine how your thrust in the “search theatre” fits into it. Don't go into search without a realistic, long-term vision of what you're fighting for and a precise definition of what “success” will look like. Depending on your vertical, you might have a long, slow slog ahead, and you've got to make up your mind at the outset whether you have the stomach for it. Unless you are absolutely committed to win, do not even think of entering this battle.

Second, if you're running search in-house, be aware that the kind of campaign automation tools you're able to license are vastly dumbed-down versions of the industrial strength versions used by the agencies that developed them. The reason that they're dumbed down is that if they were full-featured ones, it would take years for your staff to learn how to use them, and so there's been a serious trade-off between functionality and ease of use. If search is really important to you, do you really want to use a one-size fits all pop-gun or a sophisticated weapon?

Finally, if you decide to outsource search, select your agency with great care. Avoid agencies whose pitches are cloaked in technical gibberish or buzzwords. If you can't understand what they're saying, they've got a communications problem, and this is going to make dealing with them difficult, sooner or later. If they can't tell you in a sentence why they're better than the competition, they probably aren't.

You must also understand that there is no magical technology solution to the problem of making your search campaigns profitable; what distinguishes performing agencies from underperformers is their proven willingness to roll up their shirtsleeves and do the hard work. Execution, not promises or gee-wiz dashboards, carries the game every time.

Fortunately, it's easy enough to determine your agency's fitness by making a couple of well-placed phone calls to folks in the SEM biz who know, so make sure you do your due diligence before signing on the dotted line.

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