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You Can’t Hide From MSN, Part 1

Remember the amazing Netscape-ready Web sites that looked awful on Explorer? With MSN about to become a true search giant, that kind of unpreparedness might haunt us again in 2006. With the first phase of AdCenter – the MSN Pay Per Click program – set to begin next month, and with Microsoft in talks to buy into AOL, pundits are predicting a combined MSN/AOL that’s large enough to beat out Google.

If your Search Engine Marketing isn’t ready for it – well, just think about how well Explorer-unfriendly sites fared when the new Microsoft Explorer really hit the scene. The moral of that story was simple: if you’re not ready to deal with Microsoft entering your space, you need to get ready, ASAP.

To help everyone get ready, we’re dedicating a two-part article to what MSN Search will mean for your SEM. For the first part, we’ll focus on AdCenter’s incredible targeting capabilities, and why that’s a blessing for some, and a curse for others. In part two (next week), we’ll talk about how so much choice – both in terms of targeting opportunities, and in terms of multiple first-tier engines – will make search a much more powerful, and much more confusing, world.

And the quick scoop on AdCenter targeting? It’s great news for the targeting-experienced. For everyone else, the story’s not so rosy.

The good news. MSN Search will offer targeting based on key searcher data, like their geography, lifestyle and the demographic groups they belong to. Having MSN do the targeting for you, on the face of it, is very good. The way things are now, SEM managers spend enormous amounts of energy picking the right keywords and messaging to attract just the right people, and to push the wrong searchers – who create pay-per-click-costs but never convert – away from ads.

Now that MSN Search will do the targeting work for you, advertisers will be able to spend all that energy elsewhere, including enhancing other parts of their campaign while bringing current targeting efforts to a whole new level.

The bad news. That was the good news. Now for the potentially not-so-good. SEM managers who might have never dealt with sophisticated targeting before will suddenly be forced ask questions they might not be equipped to answer.

Let’s take the example of targeting ads by searcher height (that’s not an option AdCenter is offering, to our knowledge; we’re just offering it as an example to flesh out a point). It’s possible that height is a crucial factor in selling your product or services – you might be a big and tall shop, for instance, and it would be very useful to advertise shirts exclusively to tall people. At the same time, it’s possible that targeting by height isn’t useful at all, and even ignores a crucial part of your searcher audience.

Maybe, for example, most of your big-and-tall shop clients are actually women buying shirts for their significant others. Basing your ad display on searcher height alone, you’d end up leaving your core customer – women under six feet tall – out of the picture. If you try to go in the opposite direction – advertising only to people between 5’2″ and 5′ 8″ (based on the premise that that’s a typical woman’s height), you run a high risk of inviting useless, costly click-throughs from people who are looking to shop for themselves.

In other words, it’s not enough to be able to target. You need to understand how to target properly, linking targeting initiatives to larger business schema.

And if you’re dealing with an SEM manager that hasn’t been doing that all along, you face the possibility of targeting poorly, while your competition’s SEM firm, well versed in the fine art of targeting, brings your top competitor far ahead in MSN.

Traditional metrics won’t help you. It’s tempting to say that traditional marketing metrics will be able to help answer questions like these. Businesses know a great deal about their clientele, and using marketing metrics to guide television, radio and print advertising is nothing new. Logic would dictate that using those same metrics towards SEM shouldn’t require much adaptation, and the targeting-inexperienced will be able to jump on the targeting bandwagon with little difficulty.

But there’s a problem with that logic. That’s because, while most advertising is proactive (on the part of the marketer) – television watchers are shown advertising that cuts into their favorite shows – SEM is reactive: searchers ask to be shown information; advertisers provide it.

On the one hand, this means that searchers do a great deal of targeting on their own (if a searchers wants to see “tall mens shirts,” height targeting, while not rendered irrelevant, becomes less urgent). On the other hand, keywords can create levels of ambiguity that don’t exist in other advertising forms: all the marketing metrics in the world might not tell you the height of the searcher who’s just looking for “shirts.”

The point is that you can’t simply adapt targeting models from other advertising forms. Because SEM is an entirely different kind of advertising, and targeting for SEM works in a completely different way.

Good for experts, bad for newbies. AdCenter’s targeting capabilities are a certain kind of upgrade. Some upgrades help everyone work much more productively, no matter how much experience they have. Others upgrades help the experts, but are actually a burden for everyone else.

AdCenter’s targeting is the second kind of upgrade. It will be an amazing asset to SEM managers who already have broad experience in targeted campaigns. For everyone else, at best, it will be a source of frustration, as more experienced firms break ahead of the pack, while the less experienced need to learn how it all works. At worst, AdCenter will be a source of waste that advertisers won’t be aware of at first, and will only see later, when they see their competitors pulling ahead and their click-through prices rising.

But MSN Search won’t be a source of risk that SEM managers can simply avoid. MSN Search is already a first-tier search engine; when it becomes a serious Google rival, avoiding it will be, effectively, avoiding nearly half the SEM market. That’s not an option anyone can afford to choose.

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