Retail Advertising Conference, Chicago 2007

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In an attempt to expand my network and explore new educational opportunities, I elected to attend a conference peripheral to the usual SES or Ad:Tech SEM industry events. I selected Retail Advertising Conference (RAC) in Chicago because I had an interest in leveraging my previous e-retailer experience and figured I’d be one of the few SEM vendors in attendance. I also assumed that there would be a lack of knowledge and experience with SEM among attendees, making my new business efforts easy. I was wrong, but not in a bad way.

Based on my interaction and observations of the general attendees, it appeared that retailers and agency/vendors were well behind the curve when it comes to SEM knowledge. In a session featuring Tim Armstrong from Google, an audience member asked how Google makes money. With that said, the smaller breakout sessions indicated there were actually quite a few SEM-savvy attendees. In addition, large SEM agencies like Performics and iCrossing were in attendance and UnReal Marketing was an exhibitor.

Even though the conference lacked the low hanging fruits of prospective clients and partners I expected, there was still a cornucopia of learning and networking to be done. The show opened with a Tina Turner impersonator singing the show’s theme, “What’s love got to do with it?” with a rousing chorus line of men hand-picked by Tina from the audience. Although the conference was a three day affair, I was only able to attend the opening day. The good news is that RAC packed a punch in that one day.

The first presenter was Martin Lindstrom, author of BrandSense. His enlightening and entertaining presentation was an SEM professionals dream: a slick deck was packed with research that reinforced that traditional advertising doesn’t work. Unfortunately, his solution isn’t very applicable to SEM professionals: leveraging all of the senses in order to cut through the clutter and make an emotional connection between consumer and your brand. He discussed the power of the 4 other senses besides sight: smell, touch, sound and taste. Furthermore, he illustrated the effectiveness of using senses to create an emotional connection that reinforces brands “smashable” or fundamental elements. Most importantly, he reminded the audience that any brand can trademark unique aspects of the sensory experience (yes, even touch and taste).

Tim Armstrong from Google was next up to bat. While he was initially a slow starter, he did share a few nuggets that even a seasoned SEM veteran like me appreciated. First off, he reminded us that Google’s mission is to focus on the end user, and all else will follow. As a long-time client/customer of Google, I wish I saw more evidence of this from their sales and support teams. The overall theme of Armstrong’s presentation was the 3 rules to “winning” in the world of search: get instrument rated (become an expert), ask for feedback (using customer input to refine SEM campaigns) and letting customers evolve the product (in Google’s case, price text ads). An audience member asked Armstrong what the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button was all about, and he said that the founders added the feature prior to a meeting with VCs to help secure funding (which it did) and they decided to leave it up afterwards. Armstrong left the stage with a parting thought about the future: Google will play a role in, if not own, many aspects of the media buying and measurement process in the coming years. Watch out traditional advertisers and agencies!

A representative from Tivo followed Armstrong with an amazingly self-serving sales presentation regarding their “unique” DVR product. On the plus side, she did provide evidence that traditional broadcast advertising doesn’t work, and will continue to decline in effectiveness unless advertisers and agencies change with the times. I appreciated the involuntary sales pitch for SEM.

The next presenter shared the results of a collaborative study between Big Research and Yahoo! that provide insights into online advocates and how they integrate search into their purchase process. In the study, 5,000 panelists provided input on home appliance and home décor purchase behavior. Those that were classified as “advocates” (roughly 25%) were deemed most influential, as they not only purchased, but shared their positive experiences with others, influencing purchases nearly 3-to-1 over non-advocates. For Malcom Gladwell fans, these advocates would be considered “mavens.” The research further indicated that search was most powerful for remembering forgotten brands and introducing advocates to new brands. Bottom line: as an SEM professional, if you’re not considering advocates in your overall search strategies, you are missing the boat.

Two breakout sessions followed, and I elected to attend the ROI track, led by presenters from Performics and Custometrics. The Performics session, “New Thinking in the ROI of Search Engine Marketing” was a solid recap of what top tier SEM agencies are doing for their clients (including Anvil), in terms of balancing SEO with PPC efforts to optimize ROI. The primary point of interest in this presentation was the reminder not to forget latent online and offline activity that can drastically affect the overall ROI of a campaign (on average up to 3x when measured properly). This issue resonated with me, as we have many bricks and clicks clients that could do a much better job tracking offline and latent conversions. Another key takeaway from this session was that there were likely two reasons for the light audience attendance: either retailers believe there are more pressing issues than SEM that were covered in other sessions, or they felt they already had SEM under control to the degree they do not need further advice. Regardless of the reason (ignorance or hubris) many of the retailers and traditional agencies face a challenging future if they continue to ignore SEM or believe they are already experts.

In the next session, Custometrics outlined effective strategies for measuring cross-channel marketing. Custometrics provides clients with deep database analytics and modeling services. The presentation was full of research jargon and complicated examples that a majority of the audience did not understand, or at times, disagreed that it applied to their businesses. I found the reaction quite interesting, as I believe you can’t have too much information when structuring or managing an SEM (or any marketing) campaign, yet the audience was a bit put off by the deep level of analysis provided by the presenter. I believe the crux of the issue wasn’t the depth of research but rather the challenge with being able to implement suggestions like “going dark” with advertising for a given period to set a baseline from which to measure the true incremental impact of any given marketing efforts. In the end, I appreciated the insights Custometrics provided, but also agreed with the audience that very few companies have the resources with which to implement and leverage the resulting data. Companies that are able to adapt, however, will have a greater chance of success with their marketing efforts.

The final session of the day was a keynote by author and motivational speaker Seth Godin. In his captivating, entertaining and educational presentation, Godin discussed three primary concepts: remarkable ideas, the broken advertising model and the flipped funnel. Carrying the theme of the day, Godin reminded us that today’s world is overflowing with choices of products and media outlets from which to gather information. As such, companies need to be remarkable in order to be successful. To this end, Godin’s first concept was simple: ideas that spread, win. The best way for a company to succeed is to develop products and services that are worth talking about. He illustrated his point with a few examples, including the differences between BMW and Lincoln/Mercury in terms of product, market and marketing strategies. BMW has a product line of remarkable cars that appeal to a discerning audience, whereas Lincoln Mercury outspends BMW exponentially to market unremarkable cars to the average (tasteless?) consumer. He highlighted the broken advertising model of spending to gain market share to gain profits to then repeat the cyclical process. In his marketing model, the advertiser talks to a subset of consumers (that are interested in the message) and the consumer then becomes an advocate and tells others who are listening. Godin reinforced his concept with two simple steps for companies looking to cut through the clutter. Step 1: Sell to people who are listening (stop yelling at strangers) and they tell their friends. Step 2. Understand how not to get married. In other words, go on a few dates with your target audience first, then gain permission to tell your story. Lastly, deliver anticipated, personal and relevant messages to your new audience. In summary, Godin’s new model for marketing is: be remarkable, tell the story with permission, spread the word and get permission to repeat the process.

All in all, I give RAC 2007 a big thumbs-up. The presenters were interesting and engaging, the show was professionally produced and it was a pleasure meeting attendees and presenters alike. I plan on attending future RAMA-produced conferences, based on this experience. You have my permission to attend next year.

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One Comment

  1. Andrey Milyan

    Thanks for sharing, Kent. We are all looking forward to your coverage of the Search Engine Strategies NY in April.

    A