Taking the Long View

by Sara Holoubek

Recently, while riding a very slow train, I noticed two posters advocating velocity. To my left, Sybase taunted, "You risk exposure changes by the second. But your data is hours old. Analyze that." To my right, Reuter's stated, "March 12, 2009: Citi Chairman declares no more bailout money needed," and then followed with a timeline detailing the minute-by-minute evolution of the story.

At the time, I couldn't get over the irony of these ad placements, so I took a quick snapshot of each with my iPhone. Looking back, I realize that had I not been moving at the speed of molasses, I probably would not have had the time to read the advertisements, let alone contemplate how immediate access to real-time data can inform long-term strategy.

Search and the Short View

Modern technology can be both a curse and a blessing. Not only are numbers and insights made immediately available, but tools and technologies significantly shorten the time between insight and effecting change. We see this every day in search engine marketing.

At their core, keyword campaign management platforms are designed so that advertisements can be created, launched, tweaked, or pulled down in very little time. In some cases, there is little to no human intervention involved in the process, such as with landing page optimization technology.

From a tactical perspective, all of this is fine and good. Chances are, you hired an internal team or a search engine marketing agency to be responsive, and so responsive is what you got. Initially, the team aggressively tested and optimized until the program found its norms. At some point, the manager settled into a pattern where any deviation was quickly identified and addressed, in theory leaving more time for longer-term, strategic thinking.

And yet the metrics most frequently delivered to the C-suite still tend to focus on reaction to the short-term. Lengthy reports, while very helpful to the search manager or even the Internet director, land with a thud on the CMO's desk on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis.

It's no wonder eyes glaze over during discussions of ROI by keyword or the latest algorithm change. Such reports, while valuable in the day-to-day, rarely provide insight to inform the long view.

The Tortoise and the Hare

Search marketers are not alone in this behavior; reactionary thinking has imbued the industry at large. A week after Bing launched, measurement companies such as comScore were quick to report that the formidable new competitor was eroding its competitors' market share. Pundits everywhere declared their opinion on the future based on a week's worth of data.

Granted, the world at large was anxious to observe Bing's usage patterns, but can long-term market share really be shifted in a week's time? Had anyone accounted for the vast numbers of techies eager to beta test the new product? And perhaps more telling, how many of these early testers are likely to become true early adopters, fundamentally shifting their search behavior?

This is not to say that Bing won't enjoy an upward trajectory, or that it will. While the folks at Microsoft most likely enjoyed the news, it's safe to say that the launch of a new search engine was not a knee-jerk reaction. The buzz around Bing's assumed success is the result of almost a decade worth of persistent adherence to a long-term vision.

With every slow and often misguided attempt to recoup market share, our hare-like industry dismissed Microsoft as a has-been. Microsoft, however, stayed positive, focusing inward to repeatedly refine its search engine offering. Today, the firm is suggesting that up to 10 percent of its operating income will be invested in Bing for up to five years.

Measure Twice, Cut Once

Whether managing pay-per-click advertising or responsible for a new product launch, short-term thinking is usually a result of data overload. The faster information can flow, the faster it will flow, and in greater quantities. Humans must speed up their own processes to sort through and react to information, frequently leaving little time to sit back and summarize, or event question, the bigger picture. We become master tacticians, checking off boxes and moving on to the next issue in mere seconds. If you think you are the exception to this rule, consider your e-mail inbox.

Success in the long-term will be awarded to those who know how to leverage data to be responsive in the short-term as well as inform the long-term strategy. These companies are the ones who stop and ask questions, such as:

  • How might the consumer be changing -- beyond simple keyword patterns? Is there less disposable income? A change in preference? How might this information be valuable beyond a search campaign?
  • Do we have a directive that goes beyond simply chasing our competitors?
  • How does the growing installed base of smart phone users change the game?
  • What are the greater changes at play when Matt Cutts suggests that SEOs spend more time on creating useful content? What might Google's greater vision be?

And while the search marketing team frequently holds important data to help shape these questions, the truth is that this data is rarely synthesized and delivered to those higher up the chain or down the hall.

It's What You Do With the Data

By all means, invest in real-time data that helps you in the day-to-day. But also invest in the time to remove interruptions so that you can sit back and review this data at regular intervals. The data story becomes increasingly more interesting and more valuable with time. A few best practices:

Make the time. Block out time on your weekly calendar to think. In one employee survey, I was surprised to find that a good number of employees said that they simply had no time to think. Everyone was minding the data store, but no one was minding the long view.

Take it up 30,000 feet. Step outside of your search engine marketing shoes and ask yourself: What are the implications of your data for the company at large? What do we know about our customers? Our competitors? Macro-forces affecting our industry?

Identify your constituencies. Identify the teams in your company that might find value in your new insight. Consider the person down the hall, the merchandising team, the offline team, PR, and the CMO.

Boil it down and package. Consider the format in which each of these constituencies is most accustomed to receiving data, and how search data can translate. You will get a lot further learning to speak your colleagues' language than forcing "clicks and spiders" on them. If it can't be said in a five-page PowerPoint deck, than it is probably not going to resonate.

Easy access to real-time data and information is very valuable. But remember, if everyone is minding the short-term data store, who is minding the long-view?

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the August issue of SES Magazine.

Sara Holoubek is a corporate strategy consultant, advising growth firms and investors in the interactive technology and advertising sector. She is also a contributing editor of DMNews, covering digital trends. In 2009, Holoubek was elected president of the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization (SEMPO) board of directors.