Don’t typecast search as Direct

We should have taken it as a sign of things to come.

The panel I was moderating at OMMA, with the highly provocative title, “The Evolving Role of the Search Marketer”, was in a tiny room that seemed to be an afterthought of whoever planned the meeting space layout in the Marriott Marquis in New York. You actually had to walk through another, much larger room and go through a door tucked in the back corner. If one of the show organizers wasn’t personally guiding me, I might never have found it.

The second sign was equally hard to miss. Outside the “secret” door to my session was a small standard that indicated that this was the “Direct” marketing track.

Okay, relegated to the back closet and in a track that restricted search to being a “direct” channel – so far things didn’t bode well for the insightful voyage of discovery I was envisioning.

Nevertheless, we forged ahead with a very enthusiastic audience (who were no doubt glad to just have found the session) and a very seasoned panel of search veterans (Rob Griffin – Havas, Dana Todd – Performics, Michael Verghios – Mindshare and Scott Brinker – ion Interactive). And we weren’t 5 minutes into the session before we started talking about search being pigeon holed as a direct channel.

In the beginning, we search marketers had no qualms about the “direct” label. As advertisers began demanding more accountability for each and every ad dollar, we were perfectly positioned to benefit from the budget migrations. Dollars poured into search, propelling Google to glowing financials quarter after quarter. We proudly evangelized the measurability of search, eagerly thrusting forth dashboards with a laser focus on ROI.

And it worked. We rode the wave through most of the last decade. Even when the economy ground to a screeching halt in 2008, search bounced through with nary a scratch, due largely to it’s credentials as the most effective digital direct channel. While marketing budgets as a whole were slashed, search budgets either stayed the same or grew marginally thanks to the continuing inflow at the expense of other channels.

But somewhere in the midst of that giddy party, someone should have whispered in our ear, “Be careful what you wish for!” It’s like the actor who gets typecast in a role – just as Michael Richards seems doomed to be stuck in Cosmo Kramer’s persona, we may never shake the “direct” tag. We’re stuck at the direct marketing table, quite literally, in the case of the latest OMMA conference.

But, as we discussed in our session, that shuts the door to the huge potential of search to connect and inform all manners of marketing. Increasingly, consumer intent is playing out across a digital landscape and search is the “glue” that connects many of the dots. If search gets a seat at the strategic table, we can provide vital input into consumer behavioral trends, budget allocations and attribution models, targeting strategies and much more. Search remains the clearest crystallization of buyer intent available at any time in marketing history, anywhere. That’s what made it such a phenomenal direct channel, but it’s potential reaches beyond that. It’s power remains only partly tapped as long as it’s considered solely a direct tactic.

Here’s one example. Prior to the recession, Google and other engines were struggling to break out of the direct box by commissioning research showing the branding power of search. My company did some of this work for them. We created search scenarios and then used standard branding recall metrics to measure brand lift. Sure enough, we found significant lift with effective placement on a results page. But the problem was that we were using the wrong yardstick. We were trying to measure search using metrics pioneered in other, less efficient media.

The true power of search, when it comes to branding, is positioning a brand in a critical place during the key consideration process. As buyers, we use search to help us compile a mental list of options to consider. If brands are present and prominent, they’re not only included, their credibility as an option is enhanced. But if they’re not, even if the buyer is aware of them, they run a real risk of being dropped from the consideration set.

We shouldn’t have been measuring search as a branding channel on the same footing as TV or magazines. It’s not. It’s actually even more exciting than that. Search is positioned at the critical branch in the decision path where it can either significantly amplify the effects of those branding channels, or wipe out all their efforts in one fell swoop. That’s how potentially powerful search is.

But we may never get the chance to tell that message, which must be heard at the planning table where the overall strategies are drafted. You won’t hear us, because we’ll be over here at the direct table, somewhere in the back corners of the Marriott Marquis.

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