SEM Wants to Embrace the CMO

In 1996 and ’97, search engine marketing (SEM) was called “search engine positioning” (SEP). Webmasters were in charge of it. When potential customers came calling to early search engine optimization (SEO)/SEP firms, the first contact was made by the Webmaster, sent on a mission by someone in IT when it was discovered the site couldn’t be found in any search engine on any query.

The Webmaster wasn’t the right person to evaluate or engage the services of a SEP firm, but he didn’t have much choice. The IT director hired the Webmaster to build a Web site because people were nagging him the company didn’t have one. Everyone else has a Web site, so they should have one too, right?

In those days, SEP wasn’t perceived as a marketing activity. It was a technology challenge. It was a matter of writing bits of code, inserting them into HTML documents, then submitting to search engines. End of project.

During that dark time, I ranted at my audiences (and anyone else who would listen: my mom, dad, sister, girlfriend, butcher, mechanic) that SEP was a marketing, not an IT, function. “Get your IT department out of the promotion of your Web site!” I shouted on deaf ears.

Usually, we provided our deliverables to Webmasters and network admins. When speaking at conferences I’d ask the rhetorical question, “Would you let your network administrator write your press releases? No? Then why on earth would you allow your technology team to have control over how your brand is presented to a qualified audience of interested searchers?”

Maybe someone heard me, because in early 1999 something remarkable happened, something wonderful. Someone called who wasn’t a Webmaster.

A major pharmaceutical company called. Actually, a consultant the company employed called. He was charged with identifying a vendor to help his client increase “visibility” in search engines.

I visited the company and spoke to room packed full of… product managers. Some even had the title “online marketing coordinator!” I look back and think how visionary they were: Marketers hiring a firm to improve their online marketing outcome.

“Marketing coordinators” called during most of 1999 and 2000. They were tasked with identifying vendors who “do this sort of stuff.” Hey, I’m not complaining. It was still the marketing department. Already, this was a big improvement.

These marketing coordinators never made final decisions. They were the champions who would get the SEP vendor in front of the online marketing director or VP in those rare companies where such titles existed.

In 2001, we began to hear from online marketing directors themselves. It marked the end of marketing coordinators running interference.

In those first three or four years, companies spent the majority of their online budgets on banner ads, email, affiliate, and viral marketing, in that order. SEP was an afterthought. A miniscule budget (if any) was set aside for something “the Webmaster should have been doing, anyway.”

At conferences, I presented a slide showing how companies spent online ad dollars, with search in last place. I challenged them, “Your marketing mix is upside down. Search is foundational. Search must be first!”

Again, perhaps someone heard me because, by 2002, the director of online marketing was regularly involved in all conversations with what we now call the SEM firm. They were serious about search and made it a priority. Perhaps the evolution of the category name to search engine “marketing” helped.

SEM exploded in 2002 and 2003, due in large part to pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. We began telling the marketplace that SEM drives real value and costs real money. People listened to successful search marketers. Companies realized huge gains from SEM.

SEM was driving many qualified customers to Web sites, they were converting, and it was completely measurable. It raised the bar on all other marketing spending.

We began to consistently hear from the VP by late 2003 and early 2004.

The online marketing VP listened to each SEM firm’s pitch. He personally negotiated the contract and wanted to be kept in the loop on campaign returns and strategy.

Where to next?

Straight to the CMO.

In many Fortune 500-size organizations, there’s a disconnect. It’s not just between the CMO and the SEM campaign, but the CMO and online marketing in general. Even brand marketers aren’t involved in online, much less SEM.

How do we get CMOs’ ears? They must be convinced their audiences are in motion. The consumer is no longer “reachable.” Instead, she’s searching. She’s migrated so many of her activities online that, to reach her, companies must help her find them. It’s inquiry marketing. It sounds passive, but it’s not.

To get CMOs’ ears, we must convince them customer behavior has fundamentally changed. That a new medium is an entrenched part of the customer’s life, and this medium is dominated by search activity. It puts the customer in control but enables the marketer to be in the path of the customer’s inquiry, her research, and her purchase intent.

If only that marketer knew how to intersect that path. It’s one part PPC search advertising, one part paid inclusion, and one part natural SEO.

In 2005, we’ll reach CMOs but only if we prove potential customers’ behavior has fundamentally changed and they’ve made search a critical part of the buying cycle.

Search and be found, or fail to be found and lose the searcher. And by the way, “the searcher” is your customer. Welcome to our tribe.

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