Bringing Search Down to Earth

By now, you’ve probably heard about the new search study released by Nielsen//NetRatings and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). It concludes sponsored text (i.e., paid search results) are an effective way to deliver on a variety of branding objectives.

This research got me thinking about the impetus behind the study and its credibility in the context of what we know about moving brand health measures.

The press release reads:

This latest IAB study provides more evidence that sponsored search is an integral part of a successful online marketing campaign. Additionally, the research highlights the effectiveness of integrating sponsored search, contextual ads and banners for marketers to achieve their brand awareness objectives.

Perhaps the leading search players aren’t satisfied with their $2.5 billion take in 2003, which represents 35 percent of all online advertising spending (up from 15 percent in 2002, according to the IAB and PricewaterhouseCoopers). Perhaps they feel they’re missing out on a big chunk of the “new” Internet money flowing online from leading brand advertisers. Or perhaps they’re trying to convince us a four-legged animal with black and white stripes isn’t really a zebra.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully believe search engine marketing (SEM) and paid placement (via text-based communications) should play a role in most interactive marketing plans. Yet to make SEM an integral part of a brand advertiser’s media plan to drive preference, favorability, and purchase intent seems a little overzealous.

Decades of advertising research support the notion that brands are created and nurtured primarily through building an emotional bond with a target consumer. This emotional connection typically makes consumers feel more favorable toward a brand (and thus more likely to purchase) because it helps them look better; feel better; be a better mother/father/wife/husband; be popular, rich, happy; and so on. Face it. At its core, advertising creates demand for things consumers don’t necessarily need. Effective brand advertising convinces them they do.

No research study will convince me 40 words of copy against a powder blue background is a powerful enough communication to create the emotional bond that’s so critical. It’s certainly true “everything communicates.” Placement of advertising messages on any and all real estate in the public sphere is a testament to that belief. However, there should be a specific role for each vehicle and tactic included in an effective brand media plan.

Not surprisingly, we’ve found the best results in driving brand health measures to be communications that involve a rich sight, sound, and motion experience (streaming video, Flash, Eyeblaster, PointRoll, Unicast, etc.). When comparing the efficacy of these rich media vehicles to sponsored search text results, I’d bet money text isn’t a winner. I’ll stick with high-impact media units as my primary vehicle. I’ll use paid search as a secondary or tertiary vehicle for brand marketers, no matter what the study says.

Two Emerging Search Battlegrounds

Instead of using resources to convince the industry search is a branding play, the industry should focus on the two areas of search certain to be the battleground over the next 12 to 24 months: the desktop and the set-top box.

If you’re anything like me, your world is stored on your computer’s hard drive. You’re always looking for something you know you did a while ago but can’t remember what for. To find something on your hard drive, you use a built-in Windows search application that typically takes a lot of time and doesn’t necessarily deliver the results you were looking for. Microsoft purportedly made this process exponentially better in its new operating system (Longhorn), which isn’t likely to be released until 2006. Last week, the company bought a desktop search utility. Can anyone step in to fill the gap now?

Another area ripe for a powerful search solution is TV. With expansion of channels in the digital world and the explosion of viewing options, we’re begging for a quick and accurate means of cataloging and searching that content. Consider the current landscape. Over 200 channels broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks per year. That’s about 2 million pieces of content to keep track of. Once you add all the VOD inventory sitting on servers across the nation, you’ve got the new Wild West of search marketing.

Yee haw!

Join us at ClickZ’s upcoming AdForum and at Search Engine Strategies.

Vote for your favorite product or campaign from July 20 through close of business August 2.

Related reading