Inquiry Marketing Fulfills SEM’s Promise

Search engines are, metaphorically speaking, the very heart of the Internet — the pump that allows the online economy to flow through the Web. Search engines animate the Web; they make it useful. For marketers, they represent the Holy Grail specifically because of the seeking behavior they facilitate.

Marketers are beginning to recognize the importance of search engines, but two widely held misconceptions about search engine marketing (SEM) persist. First is the idea pay-per-click (PPC) search advertising alone constitutes a complete search marketing campaign. Second is the concept SEM is simply about keywords and conversions.

As I begin this new weekly column for ClickZ, let me dispel those misconceptions.

Both, Not Just One

SEM must include both PPC search advertising and “natural” Web site optimization to be complete. Today, many marketers overlook the power of natural search optimization. In my next column I’ll introduce, in more detail, companies driving outrageous traffic and success from their natural search campaigns — independently of their PPC search advertising campaigns:

  • A motion picture industry site that now drives an incremental 6 million unpaid search referrals
  • An automotive retail site that gained an incremental 1.6 million unpaid search referrals — in the second year of a search optimization campaign
  • An online retailer whose unpaid search traffic grew from 2,340 monthly search referrals to 351,000 — doubling online sales in two months

The New Name of the Game

Though keywords and conversions are certainly important, focusing on instantaneous conversions is insufficient for most marketers. Search marketing has branding value as well, and offline conversions can be measured.

But the most important thing to remember is don’t sell search marketing short by concentrating on only clicks and conversions. How you conceptualize it will impact your success rate. The industry is changing quickly — don’t get caught up in outmoded ways of thinking.

In essence search marketing seeks to understand your audience’s buying behavior and uses its query language as a proxy for purchase intent. Depending on the language, marketers infer differing degrees of purchase intent and make differing offers as a buyer moves through a qualification funnel.

When you think about it as a behavioral marketing approach, “SEM” is a wholly inadequate title to embody the depth and scope of the strategy involved in targeting an audience that searches. As a practice name, it describes only the media on which a marketing tactic is executed, not the robust strategy required to intercept the seeking behavior of a searcher.

For this reason, I propose a new category name: inquiry marketing. Inquiry marketing emphatically suggests the buying behavior the marketer is attempting to influence, not the medium on which it is applied.

Inquiry marketing treats SEM as a single tactic in a broader marketing process and context. Inquiry marketing addresses buyers’ behavior and individual buying cycles by the exact words used to construct a query. It considers the time of day and where a user queries, as well as any buyer behavior after initial interest and awareness have been generated.

The first expression of inquiry marketing was the yellow pages, but the Internet blew the top off that seeking model. Contextual ad units are also a component of inquiry marketing because buyers will visit various Web sites as they move along their inquiry process. Advertisers need to reach them and be relevant to them as they progress through the various stages of their buying decision.

I recently spoke with Forrester Research’s Principal Analyst Charlene Li. We discussed how inquiry marketing will be used in marketing campaigns, starting with science-based keyword selection. According to Li:

On the consumer side, understanding which of your consumers are using which keywords on which search engines is what most marketers are missing. When I look at the keywords that are being queried on Yahoo versus Google, different keywords work on different sites even at different times of the day…. It’s all about matching the level of inquiry marketing to where the user is in the funnel.

Ultimately, inquiry marketing seeks to introduce and place the brand in the path of this interest — after the interest has been generated on- or offline. This new paradigm and marketplace descriptor is needed because it addresses the fundamental macro shift in buyer behavior we witness today — namely, the buyers’ use of these several global query utilities (search engines) made available on the Web. We’re seeing 400 million daily inquiries, all seeking something. Never before in the course of marketing history have so many searched for so much, using so few search tools.

Gary Stein, online advertising and marketing analyst at Jupiter Research, which shares a parent company with ClickZ, agreed:

Inquiry marketing is an appropriate name because it suggests a marketing strategy that looks at the bigger picture — instead of simply, ‘We found this thing, [search], that customers like to do.’ Search engine marketing has shown the world that you can be more relevant by letting consumers find the solution themselves. Thinking in terms of inquiry marketing produces a much better long-term view because it suggests that we have identified this way that consumers behave and we’re going to service that need. The notion that search marketing is on a continuum is dead on…. Customers may be fielding their inquiries in an entirely differently way in five years, but they’ll still be making inquiries. Therefore, inquiry marketing is a really good distinction….

There’s still a need for traditional push advertising because you have to cause people to want to learn about things. Getting customers to start to inquire is still a huge challenge — but thanks to search, marketers can do a better job of working with that inquiry and making sure that inquiry turns into a value-generating behavior.

Search marketing has always excited me but inquiry marketing fulfills its promise. Welcome to the age of inquiry marketing. SEM has no idea just how big this boat will be. In the next few weeks and months we will explore it together.

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