Most CMOs know search is an integral part of any media plan in today's digital world, but its power remains largely untapped. Sargi Mann, VP director of search marketing at Carat, explains how search can provide unparalleled global scale, rich insights into potential customers, and a real-time look at what matters most to them.

Written by
Sargi Mann
September 2013

Whenever someone references search advertising as a pure performance play, I see an opportunity — an important opportunity to kickstart a change. There’s so much more to search than keywords and conversions. It’s not just a spreadsheet of bids and terms, and it shouldn’t be stuck in technical discussions or shuttled off to separate teams for optimisation. Search is constantly being pegged as a one-time response, when really it can be the start of a relationship.

I began my career in digital marketing 13 years ago in India, and in many ways my career has evolved in tandem with the platform itself. When I arrived in the U.S. in 2005, Google had established itself as the industry leader, bringing search a new level of attention. But as awareness of search has grown, people seem to have missed half of the equation. Search has become a victim of its own accountability. It has become synonymous with “performance marketing,” and conversations are bogged down by acronyms — CPCs and CPAs and CTRs.

In reality, search is part science, part strategic artform. It's part direct response and e-commerce, part brand development. The magic lies in the balance, and most of the missed opportunity lies in the strategic brand development piece.

Luckily, mindsets in the industry are evolving to embrace search in a way that’s well beyond technical and conversion-focused — as are the capabilities of search itself. The reality that’s coming into focus is this: To effectively drive business results, CMOs must learn how to tap into the strategic potential of search and maximize its power as a versatile branding tool.

To me, there are two cornerstone benefits that take search from a performance play to a strategic tool: the scale of connections and the richness of insights. To unlock search's strategic potential and reframe its role, marketers need to understand both.

Unparalleled scale

Search delivers individual connections at a significant scale, with over 100 billion searches happening across the globe - every month. What people often miss is that these connections are initiated by the people themselves. By understanding and responding to the queries of the searcher, brands can immediately establish a connection to draw them in. But search shouldn’t be seen as a sales channel defined by one optimised conversion at a time. Zooming out is where greater power lies.

Many marketers lay awake at night racking their brains for answers to the ever-haunting question, “How do I drive both dependable business value and innovation?” Often they fall back on familiar media channels like television and print to find new customers and generate awareness and consideration. But they miss out on the tremendous scale that search delivers in addition to traditional mass media. This scale further puts their brand into the consideration set, and that can take huge numbers of people to innovative new digital content the brand is eager to showcase.

It’s not that familiar channels make no sense. Traditional advertising is still highly relevant. But in a world where people, devices and communications are converging, search is the only part of the marketing mix where you can strategically tie things together from start to finish, with planning and measurement closely aligned, and with connections delivered at a gigantic scale.

Brands should capitalize on what’s behind the search box: an audience, one that actively reveals a vast array of interests, intentions and curiosities.

Rich consumer insights

Search can provide strategic insight into your customer base, your category, your brand and your competition. It’s truly a business-guiding gold mine of insights, by tapping into what consumers really care about and are interested in. Search serves as that “focus group of the world” you’ve likely heard referenced. That concept shouldn’t be understated. Search enables marketers to identify the consumer inquiry before offering a solution. It helps marketers identify perceptions before working to reinforce or adapt them, and they can mine those insights to know which messages resonate. All this insight is not just a win for search marketing. It’s actionable information that can drive greater impact for any marketing strategy — digital or not.

How does your brand perception compare to your competitors? What geographic regions search for your brand or category most? Which of your brand messages entices the most engagement? What other categories are people searching for when they search for your brand? These are the kinds of questions search answers in real-time.

Mining the insights is an art in itself, of course. It’s about contextualising the data into meaningful “so whats?”. That’s when the value of search sticks and when it reveals itself as the trusted advisor that can inform decisions of all kinds.

Marketers need to turn to search to inform their broader strategy — anything from product to messaging and distribution. Only select media platforms can offer CMOs the same depth of information in real-time. Every search trend, keyword pattern and data point is rich with cultural nuances and consumer preferences. With the power to inform so much, search can entrench the CMO further as the role enabling a customer-driven organisation.

Search at the CMO’s table

In a fast-paced, convergent media environment, speed is the way to success. Search’s real-time nature arms CMOs with essential agility to cope with the constantly shifting landscape, allowing them to keep pace with rapid-fire challenges — while still enabling innovation and invention.

Search too often is seen as separate, different, and complicated. But really search is the hub of this new, constantly connected world. Mobile and tablet behavior is further driving reliance on search. It’s central to our lives, but search is often being treated in isolation. It’s not competing with offline media; search drives offline conversations and conversions. In turn, offline exposure helps drive search activity. The full picture is so rich, yet overlooked.

From its inception, search proved itself as essential for marketers, by effectively aligning marketing communications with ROI. Now it’s time to broaden that perception and reinforce the critical role search plays in the strategic marketing mix. As an industry we’ve been slow in giving search the seat at the CMO’s table that its value merits.

The longer conversations about search are steeped solely in technical jargon, and the longer its goals are defined by driving online conversions, the longer the industry fails to recognise one of marketing’s most powerful and flexible tools for brand building and strategy setting. And, in turn, the longer end users miss out on so many brands and businesses they’re readily willing to consider.