Look at the big picture in 2012

Another year’s pretty much in the can. And because I’m working on idle this week, trying to catch my breath with my family before plunging headlong into 2012, search marketing falls somewhere behind the recent releases on NetFlix and trying out the new Wii game on the list of things preoccupying my mind. So, don’t expect any salient and timely search news from me!

When I look back on what has preoccupied me over the last 12 months, I will say that much of it has been spent “stepping back” and trying to look at the bigger picture. As online interactions have taken a bigger and bigger chunk of our lives (you’ll notice that both of the recreational options I mentioned have online components woven into them), trying to understand how our actions play out against a broader online backdrop has been the thing I think about most often.

We digital marketers tend to take that “bigger picture” and break it into pieces, trying to make sense of it by focusing on one small piece. Digital marketing lends itself to this minute focal depth because of the richness of each piece. Even the smallest chunk of an online interaction has a lot to explore, with a corresponding mound of data to analyze. We could spend hours drilling into how people use Linked In, or Twitter, or Google+ or Facebook. We could dig into the depths of the Panda update or how local results show up on Bing and never come up for air.

But think back to what, at one time, was another holiday season pastime. Some of us remember when we used to get a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas. You’d dump out all 5000 of those little photographic morsels and then begin to piece it together into a coherent image of something (usually a landscape involving a barn or a covered bridge). Success lie not only in examining each piece, but also in using the image on the box top to help understand how each piece fit into the bigger picture. Without understanding what that bigger picture was supposed to look like, you could examine each piece until the cows came home (again, often a topic for jigsaw art).

So, much of my 2011 was spent trying to understand what the picture on the top of the puzzle box was supposed to look like. What would ultimately tie all the pieces together? In physics terms, I guess you could say I’m been looking for the Unified Field Theory of online marketing. And you know what I found? You won’t find it by focusing on technology, no matter how cool it is. Foursquare marketing or search retargeting or hyperlocal optimization are all just pieces of a much bigger puzzle. The real picture emerges when you look at how people navigate the events of their lives and the decisions they must make. It’s there where the big picture emerges.

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a group of marketers about the emerging role of mobile. This was no group of digital slouches. They knew their mobile stuff. They had tested various campaign approaches and honed their tactics. But the results were uneven. Some were hits but more were misses. They knew a lot about the pieces, but didn’t have the box top picture to guide them.

My message (for those that know me) was not a surprising one – understand how to leverage mobile by first understanding how people use mobile to do they things they intend to do. Don’t jump on a QR code campaign simply because you read somewhere that QR codes are a red hot marketing tool. See first if QR codes fit in the big picture in any possible way. If you do that, you might find that QR codes are a puzzle piece that actually belongs in another box.

After delivering my sermon about the importance of understanding their respective big pictures, I asked my favorite question: “How many of you have done any substantial qualitative research with your customers in the past year?” Not one hand went up. This was a group of puzzle assemblers working without any box top picture to guide them.

If you want to sum up my past year and fit it into one final paragraph for 2011, it’s this: Understand your Customer! Spend a good part of 2012 digging deep into their decision process and their online paths. Make it personal. Stalk if necessary. Ask questions that start with “why.” Observe. Make notes. Broaden your online reading list to include blogs like Science Daily, Futurity, Neuroscience Marketing and Homo Consumericus. At some point, the bigger picture will begin to emerge. And I bet it will be much more interesting than a landscape with a barn and some cows in it.

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider December 29, 2011