Integrating Search and Display for Data-Driven User Experiences

Six months into 2010 and things are looking downright sunny, unless you’re BP, or want to swim in the ocean anytime in the next five years. So far the economic outlook is good and recent reports suggest that the digital world is poised for growth. Agencies are hiring again, staffing up new roles, and expanding teams. Clients are cautiously coming back to the digital world. Life is good in the kingdom…or so it seems.

A small storm is brewing. It’s not a client or budget problem; it’s an integration problem. Every agency is facing the problem of matching their user engagement strategy with their data-driven search efforts. How we approach this problem is key to organizing our agency resources to work with emerging trends and avoid the pending storm.

Search has always fallen into the category of algorithm-driven strategy, but with the rise of ad exchanges, demand-side platforms, and trading desks – the water has gotten murkier. With this “new” way to buy, agencies aren’t only educating clients on this new format, but also aligning an organization to deliver against it.

Why Does This Always Happen to Digital?

Digital people love digital because it’s always changing. While change can be fun, it often leaves us longing for a little consistency. When you think about offline, their model hasn’t changed in forever. Offline media models and processes still work, while digital is in a constant state of re-innovating for the newest online trend.

We all agree that television advertising is different than radio or print advertising. A media planner in radio doesn’t have to consider what people are watching on TV or factor in how many subscriptions a given periodical has. There is no doubt some overlap. However, companies can effectively manage offline media as separate entities because of their distinctly different media channels.

Digital never had this “luxury.” Search, display, and e-mail all need to integrate when developing a strategy, tracking orders, measuring performance, and delivering success. Not to mention the commonalties of analytics, tagging, and bidding platforms within the digital channel. There’s no autonomous division within digital media.

The complexity of common platforms is that we have to find a way to align our teams as the landscape changes. Media and search teams were once managed separately; they had differences in buying platforms, process, and creative output. Now, however, search and ad exchanges operate on very similar platforms, which means that our worlds will only continue to overlap.

Experience-Driven vs. Data-Driven

I’m not a fan of separation. However, there can be good reasons to separate your teams. Highlighting a division will focus your company’s resources for maximum benefit to the client. As this unfolds, we see two camps emerge based on their respective strengths: experience-driven and data-driven marketing. One group isn’t better than the other. We must simply see the key differences in each and how best to pilot them.


I see a lot of great work being done in the world of social, display, and earned media. It’s engaging, fun, and usually works well with brands looking at reach and brand awareness. These are Facebook ads, videos, blog networks, promoted tweets, etc. These people are passionate about creating an experience. Their clients are looking for user engagement and interaction, and creating a stronger brand presence online. The work is intuitive, creative heavy, and seeks to use the Web in new, exciting ways. It can be fluffy, but fluffy is important. There are plenty of reasons a campaign should be creative and generate buzz. While there’s still an important data component, the heart of experience-driven marketing is creativity in delivery.


On the other side we have algorithmic media. For today’s purposes, let’s bundle anything managed by a bidding platform into this category. This type of work is grounded in analyzing real-time data and reacting appropriately. It doesn’t mean it’s not creative. It’s just a different kind of creative. It’s less about flashy units and more about finding and optimizing for a specific consumer target. More importantly, these folks make changes based on a point in time. The biggest differentiator is the real-time nature of data vs. experience. And it’s here that the pending fight ensues.

What Does the New Media Planner Look Like?

Historically, we split display and search into separate disciplines due to differences in creative and buying methods. Now, that line is blurred.

There are people who are big strategic thinkers that can create compelling campaigns for a client. There are also incredibly insightful people who understand how to manage targets and optimize to meet client demands. These groups work fine together. Apart, however, their skills can be better focused and optimized to their fullest potential.

This is just the beginning of the branching of digital media strategy. The sooner companies can organize to best balance experience-driven and data-driven disciplines, the better they’ll be long-term.

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