How to Be a Leading, Premier or Top SEM

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Getting a grasp on the marketplace is not an easy task. One must cut through the clutter of poor business-to-business marketing to get to a set of normalized data to position the firm. And my -- is there clutter.

Granted, marketing a search engine marketing firm or agency is a hard job. I should know. It was one of the hats I wore for a few years. Lately, though, I feel like pulling out Porter's "generic strategies" or "five forces" every time I get a press release.

I'll spare you the textbook and set forth these basic rules for SEM success.

Rule No. 1: Accept that technology is a commodity

Yes, having technology is important. And yes, your technology must work. Yet over time, even the best technology has become somewhat of a commodity. Even worse, some firms with great technology that crank out beautiful reports have forgotten that it is the human analysis that creates value.

Rule No. 2: Search is a service business

Put time and money into the people doing the work. Period.

Rule No. 3: Hang on to that staff

Additions to a management team and staff are great news, but I must point out that a visual search family tree would be awful messy. Not to mention embarrassing. What to say when half of your team now works for the competition and you are poaching from left and right?

Rule No. 4: Save the press release for real news

I hate to be rude, but exhibiting at the busiest show in the industry does not constitute news, even if you are "the leading," the top" or "the premier" SEM. With over 300 speakers at SES San Jose, neither is speaking. There are many other vehicles to let prospects know where you will be and when.

Rule No. 5: Awards work

As subjective as the awards and lists can be, it is better to be included than not. How to be an award or ranking darling? Simply fill out the paperwork. Yes, it is that easy. Keep in mind that many clients are privy to this, and appearance on a list is not a guaranteed win.

Rule No. 6: Forget the secret sauce

With 10-plus Search Engine Strategies shows per year, countless books and blogs, search is no longer a secret. What your firm does is no different than what others do. How well they execute, however, is a differentiator.

Rule No. 7: Drop names

This brings me to the most important rule of all. While insiders know who lost the latest Fortune 100 deal and who won that incredible 30-site pitch, prospective clients are left in the dark.

When I first transitioned from an interactive agency to an SEM in 2003, I was surprised that the majority of clients were kept behind lock and key. In the agency world, clients and spend are worn on one's sleeve. So I developed some theories:

  • There are no good case studies. It is very possible that while SEMs are providing results, they do not meet client expectations.
  • SEMs are painfully aware of low switching costs and prefer to hold clientele close to the vest. On the other hand, perhaps the clients do not see SEMs as long-term partners and refuse to grant case studies.
  • Clients still see search as a stealth tactic and do not want results public.
  • Everyone is too busy growing to market themselves properly.

Regardless of the answer, it appears that we still have a long way to go. For the time being, I hope that a few of you, either SEM or advertiser, send news proving me wrong.

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