Practice What You Search

If search is the Web’s killer app, why are marketers so lousy at applying the fundamentals of consumer-friendly search in their own backyards?

The other day, after being seduced by a promotional poster touting McDonald’s new salads, I visited the restaurant’s ostensibly “new and improved” Web site. Slightly panicked over having just turned 40, I couldn’t resist the urge to harvest nutritional facts and typed “salad” into the site search engine.

The first result was not only off the mark, but it was written in “geek-speak.” Specifically, it read “ADA/Text Version.” The second entry was a repeat of the first. Oddly, when I clicked the hyperlink, it took me to McDonald’s 2004 Corporate Responsibility Report. The third result led me to an impenetrably long list of products, which, when I scrolled down far enough, ultimately led to a hyperlink for salad information.

For benchmarking purposes, I toggled over to Google and Yahoo to conduct the same search. Google’s first natural result took me straight to the most relevant section on the McDonald’s site for salad content. Yahoo took me a number of first-person testimonials about salads, a few raising questions about the fat content. Both yielded relevant results targeted to my consumer need.

How is it a brand that spends over $700 million a year in consumer advertising fails to meet a basic, easy-to-anticipate consumer need through its own search engine? After all, this same company pioneered fast food, the drive-through window, and a recent “i’m lovin’ it” ad campaign that features hip, in-touch, street-smart young consumers.

And there’s more irony. McDonald’s CMO, Larry Light, recently hit the industry talk circuit, touting the end of mass marketing. Marketers who continue to follow a simplistic marketing approach are committing “brand suicide,” he told members of Association of National Advertisers at a recent conference. Is this same brand that can’t help consumers find salad information on its site?

In fairness, McDonald’s isn’t alone. Recently, Coke CEO Neville Isdell made headlines for issuing a “manifesto for change.” Type the word “manifesto” into the corporate site’s search box, however, and you get no results.

Then there’s Sprint, one of the world’s leading communications companies. It doesn’t even have a search engine on its site. Remarkable, in this age of Google.

Root Cause Analysis

As marketers, we’re not immune from being out of touch with basic consumer expectations and needs. We preach the gospel of listening, but we often listen to the wrong things or hear only what we want to. We may feel like we control the message, but often our left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing. We spend a fortune on advertising designed to spark actionable curiosity, but we fail to provide outlets to act on that curiosity.

Big brand bureaucracy, bolstered by risk-averse agency culture, aggravates these disconnects. At Procter & Gamble, while coleading interactive marketing in the Web’s early days, we often joked about the challenges of “turning the tanker.” Despite all rhetorical claims to the contrary, brands today still lack the agility and responsiveness consumers expect on the Web. Departments are still siloed, projects are often over-delegated and outsourced, and approval bureaucracy and stakeholder turf-wars can make simple site changes seem Herculean.

Brand sites in particular are living, breathing metaphors of corporate paralysis. Just take a look at the McDonald’s “contact us” section, what should be the most intimate expression of the “i’m lovin’ it!” campaign. You can tell the marketing and agency folks rarely touch this zone, much less know it exists.

CMOs and brand leaders need to resolve such disconnects. Problem is, most CMOs don’t understand why visitors go to their sites in the first place. Says Kelly Mooney, president of Resource Interactive and author of “The Ten Demandments,” “Most CMOs are still guilty of not using the Web enough to know that much of the world has woven it into their daily lives.”

Better discipline around measurements will help. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Brands should measure the accuracy and satisfaction of internal search results with equal or greater discipline than how they might optimize clicks and conversion via search buys. Who’s searching, how often, and in what exact manner?

Moreover, brands, and especially CMOs, should use such measurements to drive greater accountability across the entire marketing mix. Why, for instance, waste $2.5 million on an offline Super Bowl ad if your site search engine doesn’t have a clue what you’re pitching?

When we talk to consumers, we must be prepared — across all touch points — to listen to them and answer their questions or impulses.

Your brand equity is the sum total of your search results. If a no-brainer search term yields blanks on your site or takes a useless detour, your brand simply isn’t in touch with the consumer.

Practice what you search!

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.