The Tao of Crafting Strategic SEM Partnerships

seo-strategic-taoFirst, maybe you’re in-house, working for a CPG big-brand,  e-marketing multi-million dollar health insurance products, a solo designer, are president of a boutique SEM shop in Toronto, or perhaps your wild-thing is classic PR. This post applies to you.

Every professional needs someone. This timeless axiom is especially relevant to both those who consume and those who provide search marketing services. aimClear interviewed 21 marketing companies and solo practitioners for this article, in order to clarify our anecdotal understanding of how industry peers view strategic partnerships.

Let the Games Begin
In 1999 it was feasible to be a small search marketing shop or in-house team and literally cover all the bases: SEO, paid search, social media, link/traffic building, analytics, and content development. Now SEM has exploded on to the scene, becoming the most relevant skill-set in the entire marketing universe; the multi- headed hydra of interconnected disciplines which can’t easily be handled by a single small (or sometimes medium) SEM department or agency.

In-house or out-house (always wanted to say that) healthy business things result from crafting strategic partnerships amongst specialized and trusted peers with complementary skills. Herein lays the golden path for many a marketing team to remain compact and efficient, whilst providing world class solutions to satisfy any client’s needs.

“Although we position ourselves as a full-service SEM agency, we’ve been partnering (more than ever) with what I would have considered competitors in the past. For one company, we manage PPC while a partner of ours manages SEO. In another example, we provide strategic consulting for a content portal, while the current SEM firm will manage the launch and ongoing activities.

I believe it’s a win-win-win in most cases, as the client gets best-of-breed service providers while the vendors get a unique opportunity to learn from each other and share revenue.”
Kent Lewis, Anvil Media, Inc.

Full Service SEM, Circa 2000
Back in the day, social media was a phenomenon looming intangibly on the horizon and required little attention. ” Socially informed search” meant humans maintaining the Yahoo Directory and community meant AOL chat rooms, IRC, and Yahoo Personals.

Overture was easy to operate, dominated the paid search landscape (there was no Google AdWords) and organic optimization was easy for the well-informed.  Analytics were rudimentary, conversion tracking was an afternoon cookie-bake for the clever, and link building meant directories, exchanges, and cold phone calls. Danny Sullivan, Chris Sherman, Aaron Wall, and other “old fart” SEOs hadn’t invented terms like “linkbait” and search engine algorithms were refreshingly easy to reverse engineer [sigh].

The search marketing industry was about to undergo an explosion of epic proportions, bringing the entire planet’s media empire paradigm to it’s very KNEES. Those were heady times indeed. A small SEM shop could make a massive difference for any client on any “best-practices” front.  We could literally do it all ourselves.

“Our in-house SEM department is charged with targeting 15-24 year olds artsy types.  These days the young are incredibly savvy and demand that we serve them by publishing with increasingly familiar tools. Even with our [significant] in-house marketing resources, we delegate out design, some application development and even SEO projects. 

The in-house/out-of-house hybrid approach results in better conversion and ROI, satisfies our customers’ expectations, and our team is always current with crucial SEM information. In the end it costs us less and we sell more.”
Lance Sabin, Institute of Production and Recording

Not Your Mother’s SEM
Things have certainly changed! Social media participation permeates the very fabric of society. Organic optimization remains an intense mish-mash of authentic content, publishing technique and hundreds of distribution channels. Link-building has crossed over into social media. This is especially intriguing as organic optimization and SMO (even Social PPC like Facebook) fold into the realm of social media practitioners.

“I’m a social Media marketer. That said, we social-side SEMS sure know we don’t live in a bubble, sweet as that would be. It’s in my best interest to have relationships to share with my clients… a diverse set of brilliant professionals. Then my clients can do anything, and I happily play my part. “
Shana Albert, SocialDesire

Personalized and Universal search blew “old” SEO out of the water.  Client relationships begin with taking inventory of digital assets and highly complex PPC campaigns sport millions of keywords, where sharpshooters mine long-tail ROI.  Each specialized endeavor requires deep commitment to craft and have become cottage industries unto themselves.  It’s easy to understand why solo or small SEM practitioners often choose to focus, as opposed to attempting to do it all it all.

Our focus is our agency’s organic search, paid search, and social media. We keep these functions in-house as we have the knowledge and expertise. Other activities where we don’t feel we have as strong a competitive advantage (usability, email marketing, web design, and affiliate marketing) are outsourced to experts we view as being the market thought-leaders.

Often our strategic partners bring us work that’s perfect for what we do best. In the end, it’s all about working together to get clients the results they expect in this incredible age of specialization and heightened expectations.”
Jeff Quipp, SearchEnginePeople

Should Relationships be Transparent?
Some of the firms we interviewed transparently share subcontractors with their clients, even to the point of direct billing and no marked up fees. The advantages can include more efficient communications channels, clarity, and shared customer service responsibilities. Points of danger are sometimes fragmented communication, lack of a coordinated front, a confused client and more complicated communication.

Other strategic partners find it less complicated to remain in the background. In our interviews we heard repeatedly that a key advantage to having the partner-firm remain invisible was that the “originating” company nearly always has a better understanding of the client’s goals and makeup. Decisions as to the “transparency issue” are personal to every strategic partnership and should be embarked upon intentionally.

“We’re an advertising agency that specializes only in pay per click. That’s all we do. Maximizing conversions is critical for our clients, so we partner with web designers analytics firms and a range of others. Reciprocally we also partner-out, usually transparently, to agencies who subcontract PPC work to us, so they can provide top service to their clients without maintaining an expert staff in-house. It’s just easier’.
David Szetela, ClixMarketing

PR agencies are all over the SEM revolution and have learned to partner with SEM shops. Social media is such a huge component of the “new” PR and so makes total sense that “traditional” practitioners appreciate the benefits SEM-type thinking brings to the arena. Savvy PR practitioners embrace social and are partnering more and more with SEM shops

 “SEM agencies and PR agencies are usually 180 degrees apart on the spectrum of measuring results of their efforts.  To SEMs, immediate feedback means spreadsheets with detailed analytics. PR clients are more used to clip-books with column inches counted months later. These days, clients want immediate feedback and statistics as to their efforts. We’ve learned to embrace this conundrum and partner to capitalize on the advantages of both PR and SEM. Using strategic partner-vendors helps us link PR results with the magical measurement capabilities of the modern SEM.”
Janet Johnson

 “Search marketing is expanding and becoming much more of a specialized field. We’ve found it highly beneficial to partner with key providers and concentrate on our areas of specialty. Our entire approach to the web is to unify the various components of marketing under a strategic umbrella, so it often makes sense to augment our strong points with complimentary solo consultants directly for specific projects. This is the model we’re working with and it’s been successful.”
Adam Audette, AudetteMedia

In-House, CPG, big pharmaceutical, independent designer, local SEO or up and coming carpet cleaning company — everybody needs somebody else sometimes. The timeless reality of the interdependent corporate web has never been more obvious than in the field of search marketing. Paid search, organic, social, PR, email, and every classic node, there’s work enough for everybody. Specialization, as the SEM universe expands, is inevitable.  Many of our peers reach out to forge strategic relationships.

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