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Escape the Search Ghetto: Becoming Digital Marketing Strategists

Written by Luke Cerny
I recently had the pleasure of attending Pubcon 2013 in Las Vegas, where my brain was jam packed with a plethora of awesome internet marketing information – a lot of it directly relating my role in managing search engine marketing campaigns. One session, however, stood out from the others – it challenged me to take a step back and view my role from a different perspective. The presenter, (Bill Leake, CEO of Apogee) asked how many people in the room were search engine marketing specialists. Not surprisingly, most were. He then asked how many people wanted to be search engine marketing specialists 10 years from now. I’ll admit that I didn’t raise my hand, but surprisingly nobody else did either.
Now don’t judge me yet – I LOVE search engine marketing. Search marketers are a pretty devout crowd. We take pride in what we do and stay up with the newest trends in the industry. We are awesome at the subtleties of the tools we use – AdWords, Bing Ads, Webmaster Tools, Analytics, etc. We could (and often do) spend entire days clicking through our PPC accounts making adjustments or performing keyword research to write the perfect <title> tag for our client’s niche landing page.
So that begs the question: why didn’t anyone raise their hand?

Seeing Into the Future

The short answer is this: Chances are your 10 year plan is targeting career goals that are a little higher than just managing PPC campaigns, or even managing a search department. Most people wanted to be CMOs, VPs, CEOs, or aspire for some other senior role – if not taking the leap and becoming business owners themselves. How we can get there and escape the “search ghetto” (as Bill so affectionately called it) to find a fruitful career post-SEM is entirely up to us as marketers.
Consider this: We all have heard of or worked with that “PPC Specialist” or “SEO Manager” from another company who has some ridiculously narrow job function. Just the other day a coworker told me about a girl she knew who’s sole purpose at her job was maintaining a top ad position for some keywords her manager thought were important. She didn’t know how to do keyword research, A/B test ad copy, or do competitive analysis. She probably didn’t know why those keywords in particular were important, or even if they truly were. But damn, did she know how to update those keyword bids!
As someone with experience in the field, I wouldn’t necessarily call this utilizing the best of our abilities to move the needle for clients. Tactic-heavy approaches to PPC management, or any form of digital marketing for that matter, just don’t work anymore in this multi-device, multi-channel world. In essence, we need to take off our SEM hats and think more like digital strategists to see the big picture of how search compliments the digital marketing mix.

It’s Not Just Search Anymore

If we don’t want to pigeon-hole ourselves as search engine marketers, doing so on an even broader spectrum as “marketing professionals” seems that much more foolish. Search engine marketing is an important aspect of online business and the digital marketing mix. If you learn how people interact with search engines, you can clearly see that search needs to be a major consideration for companies doing business on the net. At the same time, however, you don’t want to put all of your eggs in one basket. The technology landscape is changing faster than anything else in the world. The next big change in technology could happen tomorrow without warning, encouraging us to adapt and expand our thinking to that of more of a digital marketing strategist. If for some reason it affects how (or if) search marketers do business, then a lot of people could be without jobs, or worse, without other technical skills.
This is why we as search engine marketers MUST begin developing the skill sets and critical thinking we need to rise above as marketers.
Even if that worst case scenario never happens, we still want to develop those skills to become more effective with our online marketing activities. With Google’s recent Hummingbird update and [not provided] becoming 100% of organic search queries in Analytics, it is clear that even the search engine landscape is volatile. If we are ever to move out of the “search ghetto”, we need to stop being “search marketers” and become “marketers who happen to be freaking awesome at search”. Instead of using tactics and short-sighted strategy to get people to a website, we need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and try to truly understand our clients, customers, and where we fit into the marketing mix.

3 Tips for Escaping the Search Ghetto

  1. Try to better understand context, cohort marketing, and develop strategies for semantic search. Identifying specific language cues will help you better understand your audience and better communicate with them. Likewise, people using social networks are in a different mindset than people who are performing a Google search. Learn how all of these channels work together and, more importantly, how your audiences use them. In the same respect, proactively stay ahead of trends and develop a mobile-friendly website. You have different audience segments using different channels in different contexts, so marketing to them all in the exact same way is like trying to make a living as a sad clown for hire – you may make a dollar here or there, but mostly you’ll just freak people out.
  2. Make sure your clients have a freaking foundation to their content strategy.  Content is great, but as my teammate Alex Morask says in the linked post, “Rolling out a content marketing program without addressing structural content strategy is like trying to build a beautiful new skyscraper on top of a landfill”. Truth. Don’t just innovate for the sake of innovating. Know why. Have content rooted in a deeper cause.
  3. Do more to understand your clients’ businesses, their products, their customers, and their competitors. This seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how little some search marketers really understand the businesses they are working for. They may know the “top keywords”, but do they know what differentiates their client from competitors? If so, are they reflecting those key differentiators in ad copy, keyword targets, and website content? Sometimes these differentiators can be communicated tangibly – other times they may come through the attitude of the brand. If you cannot figure out what differentiates your client’s business, then you will fail. If your client can’t figure out what differentiates their business, then it’s about who has the lowest price and you wouldn’t want to work with them anyway.

Closing Thoughts

In summary, none of this is easy and it takes a lot of time and effort, but it is the only way you will succeed. If you use your search prowess as a crutch and become introverted into your specialty, you are never going to be able to truly make your search campaigns shine. No man is an island – neither is a marketing practice.

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