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SEM as Mass Tourism

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“Gibberish doesn’t sell” didn’t exactly convey the theme I wanted, so my Big Idea for ad:tech has been tweaked slightly to “search is like mass tourism.” …

Not to reveal the whole 62-second bit here, but the idea has a long history: advertisers tend to drift towards overthinking or “skewing their creative towards the highbrow.”

Using the mass tourism analogy: my friends came to visit Toronto. Even though they’ve been to all four corners of the world, and would be considered sophisticates, their search for things to do while in town involved “CN Tower” and “Niagara Falls.” Although “authentic” travel experiences are increasingly in demand (which is why I took my friends on a 3.5 hour drive to see the “real Canada”), the main volume of tourism business is driven by consumers whose standards for “what counts as authentic enough to have a good time” are a bit looser than that of experts and intellectuals. (Thanks to Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s The Rebel Sell for this insight.)

In search marketing, we are often priced out of the mass market, super-popular keywords and concepts at the big end of the Long Tail graph pictured above right. But the bulk of the business can’t come from the rare, esoteric long-tail queries, as romantic as that may seem. If you work in a midsized company or an important division of a larger company, you have to think scale, and that means targeting not the most general audience, but something akin to a “mass niche” audience.

So need to remind ourselves that we'll be writing ads to a broader audience, and even a slightly mindbending twist in an ad headline can result in weak response. While it is important to write ad copy that filters the wrong prospects, there's no sense in writing overcomplex headlines that tend to filter more "random searchers" than they should - whether they are good prospects or bad. The Web 2.0 marketer's conceit of "extreme granularity and audience sophistication" can simply be overdone. So the "SEM Zone" may tend to be in the middle of that long tail. The ads we write and the tone we take need to be straightforward, navigational, and nonjudgmental. By writing an unpretentious, direct headline like "Email Accounts," instead of one like "Get an Email Inbox for Life" or "Get Your Own Email Domain," you let people place their own meaning on your offering, rather than trying to box them into one.

If this post has become just a shade too clever, to boil it down, I'm trying to warn against creating inappropriate ad headlines due to overthinking... the kind of overthinking that comes from being too exposed to your own industry. Your audience may be increasingly sophisticated, but that doesn't mean you can or should burden the searcher or user with everything that lurks under the hood in your offering... especially not when they're quickly scanning a page of SERP's or content.

At the end of the day, your numbers will guide you. Even a slight brow-furrow for your prospect will lead to unnecessary filtering.

Andrew Goodman is Principal of Page Zero Media, a marketing consultancy which focuses on maximizing clients’ paid search marketing campaigns.

In 1999 Andrew co-founded Traffick.com, an acclaimed “guide to portals” which foresaw the rise of trends such as paid search and semantic analysis.

SEM as Mass Tourism
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