SEMPO Looks Back, Pushes Ahead

The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) celebrated its first birthday this week, and while it’s been a productive year for the fledgling association, the group has also had its share of growing pains.

In the week heading up to Monday night’s meeting at the Search Engine Strategies show in San Jose, search marketing message boards around the Web lit up with a discussion of SEMPO’s actions, inactions, and reason for being. It was sparked by an article written by Mike Grehan, CEO of search marketing firm Smart Interactive, and member of SEMPO in the U.K.

His article focused on the board’s lack of communication with members, including not sharing with members a vote in May to grant SEMPO president Barbara Coll a $1500 weekly stipend when she took on the role of acting executive director, in addition to her roles as president and chair of the board. He also questioned the logic of having the Italian committee lead SEMPO’s expansion into Europe, when the U.K. — the second-largest market after the U.S. — was not represented on the board.

“It was not a personal thing,” Grehan said. “There was no personal attack on anybody. I just stated the facts. A lot of people have now agreed that it was a good job that I did that. I thought it might light a few campfires, but I wasn’t expecting that kind of response.”

Gathering Feedback

While it was surely not the way SEMPO’s board would have planned to gather feedback from its members, the responses online generated more constructive criticism from its members than the board had gotten all year, according to Dana Todd, co-founder SiteLab International, a member of the SEMPO board of directors and chair of its Education Committee.

“The feedback over the last week has helped us to increase the membership. We’ve had a lot of awareness raised this past week. It actually served as a drum roll for all of the things we were going to be announcing,” Todd said. “In reading the forums, people making suggestions or asking questions helped us to make sure what we were going to present met the demands people voiced in the forums. People came to the meeting expecting answers, and we were able to give them exactly that.”

Coll agreed, pointing out that the controversy online prepared the board well to incorporate a lot of the suggestions that the members had. “Getting feedback is really hard. Getting positive feedback is even harder,” she said. “This created a place for people to support us as well as give us constructive criticism, which is very important for us.”

Coll told members at the meeting that her search marketing business, Webmama, was suffering as a result of spending 4 to 5 hours a day on SEMPO business.

“If you turn that around, it’s also the reason that SEMPO is suffering,” Grehan said. “The sooner that there is somebody in place full time, that will make a great deal of difference.”

Coll also said that she had no desire to take on the role of executive director, and planned to step down as president and acting executive director as soon as a permanent director could be found. She said that although the membership was never notified of the stipend, the board had planned to announce it at the meeting.

“It was a temporary stopgap measure, never intended to be a permanent position,” Todd said. “One of the committees we formed at the meeting was a selection committee to go and find an executive director. We know that we need to have an executive director in place who can give us more attention from an organizational and managerial perspective. We’re hoping to get someone in place in November, if possible.”

While much of the controversy online centered around Coll’s stipend, it was not the main focus of Grehan’s article, he said. “In the article that I wrote, there are only two sentences in there that mention Barbara Coll and a sum of money. On the one hand, they went off on a tangent over that sum of money and kind of missed some of the issues I was talking about.”

These issues include having a U.K. representative on the board, or addressing the idea that the board of SEMPO feels that it can appropriate member funds into personal bank accounts, appoint new officers and make policy decisions without talking to the membership, he said.

Lack of Communication

“We did a really lousy job of communicating with our member base,” said Todd. “This year, there’s a renewed commitment to figure out how we can talk to everyone and make sure everyone has a voice, and they’re all getting the information they need. We plan to be far more transparent than we have been in the past.”

“There was no intent to not communicate, it’s just that some of the stuff, we didn’t even think about,” Coll said. “We’re moving fast. We’ve created a huge organization in a year. We dropped a few balls along the way.”

In addition to the goals of increased communication and hiring an executive director, SEMPO plans to hold elections for 3 new board members by the end this year, as well as hold elections for all current board positions, which are up for renewal in March 2005.

The most important goal is education, Coll said. “We have to get out there and keep promoting search engine marketing in the advertising world, including the print world, so we can get at more of the marketers out there that don’t know much about search engine marketing, are a little afraid of it, or just don’t know what it is they need to be educated about. We want to provide that education.”

Education a Top Priority

To that end, SEMPO this week launched a major advertising campaign, beginning with banner and email ads on Adweek online properties and continuing with other trade publications. The target market is the media planners who are often “old school”, and may not have had significant exposure to search. The tag line is “Top of Search = Top of Mind”.

“We’re trying to use old school language like ‘top of mind awareness’. We’re stepping out to try to cross that breach between the new media and the old media. We want to talk to them in their own language and invite them into the conversation,” Todd said.

The biggest demand for search marketing is coming from the advertisers themselves, according to Todd. Brand managers are asking their agencies to include search marketing in their media plans. While some of the big agencies have significant expertise in search marketing, they may not be putting enough effort into it, and they may not be growing it. That’s what SEMPO hopes to influence, she said.

“All of the big agencies have some sort of search component, large or small. They’ve noticed search, but they’re not necessarily allocating as much of their total ad budget as we would like,” Todd said. “They’re doing, but they’re not doing enough of it — we want more.”

What’s holding them back may be the business model — they don’t know how to make money off it. Search marketing doesn’t always follow the same business models as traditional media buying or creative development, Todd said.

“The search engine marketing dollar is hard-earned,” she said. “Once they see they can make money off of it, and once they see that it performs for their clients, and their clients are happy with it, they’ll do more. We have to reward them with good results before they’re going to invest more.”

In addition to the advertising campaign, SEMPO hopes to work with some of the big marketing groups to have more of a presence at their events. The group also plans to be more aggressive with a public relations campaign. It put out about 10 releases in the last year, focused around raising awareness of the organization. Next year, a good portion of the group’s efforts will be pushing search marketing and the role of marketing professionals in that arena, Todd said.

“At its core, the message is ‘Search is good’. At its more complex level, what we want them to do is engage with a search engine marketing professional to amplify the potential of search in their media mix,” Todd said. “Properly applied, search can outperform nearly every other media they have in terms of efficiency. Not necessarily in reach, but definitely in efficiency.”

Research in the Works

Another goal this year is to complete a research study to estimate the size of U.S. advertiser spending on search engine marketing and critical trends about the SEM sector. SEMPO announced on Tuesday that it had contracted market researcher Rick Bruner, of Executive Summary Consulting, to conduct the study, with a final report expected to be released toward the end of the summer.

The research includes a thorough review of existing third-party public research, analysis and commentary, in-depth interviews with experts in the search marketing field, and an original survey of hundreds of marketers and specialists in search marketing.

“We want to benchmark the search marketing industry through search marketing companies — see how much money is going through, how much are we pushing through to the search engines from an advertising point of view. Then we’ll look from there at how we can grow the industry,” Coll said.

Establishing Best Practices

Another goal, which may turn out to be the most difficult to accomplish, is to define some best business practices for members to follow. The idea is not to condone or condemn certain tactics, or to certify companies in any way, but to provide some guidelines to enhance the reputation of all SEMPO members.

“This is about things like providing credible references to prospects, not deceiving clients. We’ll let the search engines worry about guidelines and standards,” Coll said. “It’s a reputation thing for the whole industry.”

The discussion about what to include will not be short, and it will require a huge amount of feedback from the members, she said. She also knows that there will surely be some members who just don’t want SEMPO to get involved in this part of their business, but the need for guidelines is there if the industry is to grow and be respected.

“We can’t get into the mainstream media planner’s checklist if they’re afraid or don’t trust the search marketing world,” she said. “There need to start being guidelines at every level. This needs to start happening.”

In the long run, a little controversy ended up being a very positive thing for SEMPO, according to Todd. There was significant feedback, and the board was able to address the members’ concerns.

“There are certain issues that need to be addressed more closely, in a lot more detail, but at the end of the day, they realize there has been a disconnect between the board and the members in terms of communication. That’s the first place to start,” Grehan said. “They told the audience they hear what the members are saying. They’re going to do things to put it right. Start now.”

“I had lots of people come up to say how much they’ve gotten out of their association with SEMPO. They feel part of something larger, and they feel part of something that is special to SEM,” Todd said. “The general feeling walking away from the meeting was satisfaction, and feeling comfortable that a lot of work has been done to date, and that we have a much bigger job ahead of us now.”

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