Old media, new media, and the future of search

Recently, broadcast network NBC announced that it would be laying off some 700 staffers, consolidating some New York operations, and that it would be replacing scripted drama in its 8 p.m. prime time slot with cheap reality and game shows. The cutbacks are meant to compensate for diminished ad bookings, which were down by just about a billion dollars in last Spring’s upfront.

NBC’s moves were no surprise to those who have been following the long-term spending shifts from untargeted, unaccountable media to laser-targeted, immediate-feedback media such as search marketing. Nor did it surprise many in the broadcast and traditional advertising communities: these people aren’t fools, and they’ve known for several years that their immensely profitable industries risk being swept away by the disruptive technological changes manifested by the Internet unless they aggressively reinvent themselves.

But simply being aware that that your industry faces extinction unless it rapidly evolves is a far cry from being able to effect changes sufficient to adapt to the evolved media landscape. Old media companies, from Time-Warner to Disney and News Corp. have been placing bets on New Media properties for ten years because they have all seen the rising digital tsunami and attempted to surf it. (Does anyone remember Pathfinder, or Go.com or iGuide?). In these companies’ defense, the Internet of 1996 bears little resemblance to that which we find today, in terms of the size and quality of its user base, the relative ease with which valuable content can be found (thanks to the search engines), the availability of technologies that can easily monetize content assets (such as Google Adwords and Adsense), and the penetration of broadband, without which sites such as Myspace and Youtube would never have acquired the critical mass of users required to justify their high valuations. While all of these broad enabling trends were well known ten and certainly five years ago, it’s equally clear that the companies that would eventually become the beneficiaries of these trends not only could not be predicted, but may not even have existed back then.

Which brings us to search. Today, it seems, Google is an unstoppable force with a dominant and growing share of search queries, a $130 billion market cap, and a culture of innovation which is specifically designed to identify disruptive technologies in time for it to either acquire them or forge partnerships enabling Google to profit from their success. Google is where the eyeballs are. Search marketers need to fully understand how to conduct smart search campaigns there, to take advantage of emerging targeting technologies that Google is innovating, and to optimize all points in the post-click user chain to maximize conversions. Executing all of these tasks expertly is, for many marketers, is not only a mission-critical requirement with a direct and measurable effect on one’s bottom line, but a major organizational challenge, given the way that marketing departments have been historically siloed from other business divisions, and the difficulty of finding, training and overseeing enough qualified people to carry out expert search campaigns.

But even for companies that are smart and agile enough to fully integrate search within their existing marketing mix and reap its benefits, search marketing is a mercurial and unpredictable medium, which requires constant adjustment of strategy and tactics. Not only are the search engines’ algorithms constantly being refined and the competitive environment constantly shifting, but the introduction of new targeting technologies requires that practitioners constantly upgrade their skill sets. The ability to carry out the kind of intensive and ongoing educational program required to keep pace with the changes that the engines have waiting in the wings can be daunting for even the most forward-thinking organization.

Given these challenges, it’s no wonder that the rhetoric issuing forth from recent media conferences (“Newspaper Advertising: A Destination, Not a Distraction,” “Magazines: The Safest Bet in Advertising”) sounds so appealing. If this rhetoric is to be believed, marketers can just relax, go back to the old, very simple media model, and stop worrying. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking isn’t just delusional: it’s dangerous, unless it turns out that Google is working on a time machine that we can all step into, returning us to the comfortable world of 1985.

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