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Searching for Options: Integration Spells Sweet Success

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I like options, especially during the summer. And while I can get by with the basics – chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry – I much prefer their cultivated cousins, like New York Super Fudge Chunk, Cherry Garcia, or my favorite, Chunky Monkey.

Sure, some might consider these to be mere ice cream flavors concocted by a couple of wayward hippies, but I can't help but think of them as something else entirely. For me, they represent integration at its best. In short, if anyone knows how to combine different elements for superior results, it's Ben & Jerry's.

Given that, if you're in the market for a search vendor, you might have something to learn from the boys in Vermont. Specifically, while options abound, successful integration has its rewards.

As more money is driven online in order to follow the consumer, it has become incredibly important for marketers to understand that they must modify their strategies to include an online presence as part of their overall marketing mix. This does not mean you should ignore traditional media because it's going away. Rather, a successful marketing plan incorporates both online and traditional marketing at the right times. Quite simply, marketers need to understand the importance of integrating the two.

Today, smart marketers realize this need for integration plays a key role in search marketing vendor selection. But much like its creamy counterpart here, search vendors come in numerous flavors, and choosing one is no easy task. The sheer amount of information and due diligence required throughout the vendor selection process is challenging at best.

But despite the difficulty of the selection process, engaging in search marketing is pretty much a given. Over the last ten years, search has evolved into a mainstream channel, and practically everyone on the planet recognizes its importance. No wonder everyone in the marketplace wants the knowledge and expertise to perform it, and more than a few are scrambling to get it however they can.

With that said, it's interesting to examine the different types of business models that have emerged, along with the various ways companies are acquiring this skill set so late in the game. Let's take a look at a few of the options on the table.

Option 1: Traditional Agency Embraces Search Marketing

In this model, a traditional agency expands to offer search marketing services. It is essentially an import model where the agency is suddenly infused with search expertise. The key benefit of this approach, of course, is the integration it offers with its other traditional services.

If I was considering this option, the first thing I'd want to know is how they obtained their search knowledge and experience. Did they acquire a search company, and if so, how good is that company, and how are the two being integrated? Or, did the agency hire a bunch of smart people and put them through a search training course? Or even still, perhaps they hired search veterans. Whatever the case, I'd want to know who is overseeing the search practice. After all, regardless of how they built-out the ranks, at some level there needs to be a search guru in the mix to at least support those coming up to speed.

While this model is certainly viable – and one that offers ample opportunity for integration – keep in mind that search requires substantial knowledge, experience, and expertise specific to the discipline, none of which is inherent in a traditional agency environment. In addition, if you are considering this model largely for the ostensible integration benefit, keep in mind that while an integrated approach is optimal, the end product greatly depends on the quality of each standalone discipline. In other words, if the key ingredients are shoddy, the results will most likely be sub par as well.

Option 2: Search Marketing Firm Expands into Traditional

In this model a search marketing firm shifts its focus away from exclusively offering search to become a full-service agency. It is essentially a morphing approach. And it appears to have merit, as it supposedly offers the best of both worlds: a deep search offering rich in knowledge and expertise, whilst offering hand-in-glove integration with its traditional marketers that have been newly folded into the mix.

While the upside to this model is fairly obvious – integration – it is also probably the most challenging of the three. Why? Traditional media has been around for nothing short of eons; they are firmly established and entrenched, and there is no shortage of players in the space. Given that climate, it begs the question: Is there really room for yet another entry in the field, and if so, can it truly differentiate itself from the pack?

Undoubtedly, the skills and services resident in a traditional agency can be obtained via acquisition, and would definitely speed up the process in helping a search firm offer a fully integrated solution. However, with such an approach, you would need to not only determine the expertise and knowledge of the search practice, but also the new services, and ultimately assess how the disciplines are being integrated.

If I was considering this option, my biggest concern would be how well the vendor has successfully integrated its various disciplines.

Option 3: Search Marketing Firm

This model – which is essentially a best of breed offering – is exclusively focused on search. As such, the benefits of it are obvious as it provides for the most sophisticated search offering with a depth of knowledge, expertise, and experience across a wide spectrum of client business models.

However, since the mainstay of this option is search, the focus of scrutiny for this model is its ability to integrate with other channels. In other words, can they play nice in the sand box with others?

As a marketer, I may already be engaged with a firm for my traditional media initiatives, and I also might have other vendors on board such as my PR firm of choice, an analytics provider, and my preferred search marketing vendor. Each is an independent player, and each specializes in their own discipline. Given that, the challenge with this model is how to integrate numerous services into one coherent plan. Moreover, who does the integration onus fall upon?

While integrating individual players can be involved, marketers should keep in mind that being the client in each relationship allows them to stipulate that service providers must work together if they want to keep your business.

Clearly, the upside of this model is the expertise that only a best of breed provider can offer. However, given the importance of integration today, if I was considering this option, I would want to examine their integration track record.

Ultimately, any organization considering marketing in a holistic manner will require incredibly intelligent individuals within their own organization who have strong personalities to manage any of the options discussed above. And if you are truly looking for a turnkey solution, Option 1 or 2 could be valuable alternatives for you, but I've yet to come across an organization that outsources its CMO -- not to say it couldn't happen.

So which configuration is the best one? The answer is...drum roll please...it doesn't matter. It really doesn't. However, what does matter a great deal is that your due diligence is thorough, that the organization and individuals you'd be working with are competent, and that they have the right level of real life experience to ensure you'll be able to accomplish your goals.

You want to be sure that they know what they're talking about, that they have successfully worked through many different search scenarios, and that they can integrate your search initiatives with your other marketing channels. That's what matters most.

However you decide to engage in search, be sure to choose your search marketing vendor wisely, and give careful consideration to the importance of integration in the process. Otherwise, you could end up with a melt-down on your hands, and a sticky mess that could take more than a few napkins to clean up.


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