Tough Questions for CMOs

CMOs are caught between a rock and a hard place. The “rock” is the fact that buying media the old-fashioned way doesn’t work in a time when ever-greater shares of audience have migrated to the digital environment. The “hard place” is the fact that many of these new forms of digital media are in the experimental phase, making it difficult to evaluate whether investing in them is warranted.

But confusion in the CMO suite doesn’t excuse CMOs from the obligation to be knowledgeable about search marketing. SEM as a discipline is five years old, its best practices are well known and is mature relative to other, more experimental forms of digital media. Still, many CMOs seem to be reality-challenged when it comes to search. Here are some tough questions I’d like to ask them:

1. If search is the “wave of the future,” why are you putting such strict ROI requirements on your campaigns? Shouldn’t you be foregoing immediate profits and making a long-term investment? Does the fact that CMO tenures are now typically shorter than 24 months explain the lack of long-term thinking in the executive suite? Or has strategic thinking simply gone out of style in Corporate America?

2. If search is so important, why do so many CMOs delegate the selection of an SEM partner to an internal search tactician? Yes, your SEM tactician might know the mechanics of keywords, bidding tools and engine APIs. But are you sure he or she knows how to pick a strategic partner? Look at it this way: Would you let your bright, but fresh-out-of-law-school, in-house corporate counsel pick an IP or anti-trust lawyer to help you fight off a critical trademark or anti-trust challenge?

3. Why do you still rely on RFPs to select strategic SEM partners? Requests for Proposal (RFP) work adequately for selecting vendors whose goods and services are essentially commodities. But using them to select strategic partners is a prescription for failure. It’s common knowledge that many SEM agencies are much better at filling out RFPs than actually delivering results. If you want to keep your job, don’t ever think that an RFP is a shortcut to due diligence in the selection process – there isn’t any.

4. I always hear “I don’t pay a lot of attention to search because it’s just a small part of my budget.” But the truth is, it’s only a small part of your budget because you don’t pay a lot of attention to it. Unfortunately, many CMOs fail to see that crimped budgets and rigid ROI requirements create a classic self-fulfilling prophecy for failure. Put another way, there’s no way your dog will learn to hunt if you keep it tethered to a 3-foot leash.

5. After you’ve had some bad experiences with a few SEMs, why do you blame them? You rarely hear CMOs going around saying, “My last advertising agency gave me the shaft,” or “My last ad agency is run by a bunch of crooks.” So why do you hear CMOs making these kinds of comments about SEM agencies? This kind of nasty finger-pointing is a direct result of CMOs failing to follow SEM agency selection best practices.

6. Why do so many of you feel the need to in-source your Search tasks? In-sourcing may make sense in certain instances, but it’s neither a panacea nor a promise of better performing search campaigns. Remember: your in-house team will have to use an off-the-shelf automation tool that’s likely hard to customize to your business objectives. An equally serious problem pertains to staffing: given the widespread shortage of qualified search experts, you’ll have to pay your search team a premium so they don’t walk, because if they do your entire investment walks with them. Until the search job market stabilizes, relying on in-house search teams is the most dangerous way to go.

7. Why do so many CMOs think they’re doing fine in search but have no clue what their search share even is? Without this basic information, it’s practically impossible for any CMO to determine the opportunities provided by SEM to drive growth. If you don’t know where you are, you can’t devise a plan to take you where you want to be.

8. Why don’t CMOs periodically call in search companies to provide an outside evaluation of the effectiveness of their internal team? What are they afraid they’ll learn? It’s common in Corporate America to call in expert consultants to examine their productivity levels and prescribe changes. But this rarely happens in search, even though search companies are best qualified to provide this advice. Are CMOs so terrified by failure that they’re afraid to discover what’s wrong with their search campaigns while there’s still time to fix them? If so, we’re in much deeper trouble than we think.

CMOs play a crucial role in the enterprise by driving growth. SEM campaigns, when run expertly, can drive growth better than any known interactive marketing medium. It is my hope that CMOs will make better decisions – both for the sake of the enterprises for which they labor and for their own career prospects – as they become better acquainted with SEM best practices.

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