Search isn’t the death of advertising, it’s the future

Internet search services do not pose a threat to the advertising world, they simply offer a different route to successful marketing, says Alan Mitchell

When Henry Ford produced his first car it was driven by a bicycle chain, had bicycle wheels for tyres, a doorbell as a horn, a wooden plank for a seat, and – oh yes – no brakes. It only broke down once in its first outing on the night of June 4, 1896. Later, Ford’s basic Model T had no roof, windshield, headlights, shock absorbers or starter motor. You had to crank it manually to start it – a high-risk activity considering that getting the cranking wrong gave you a high chance of breaking your wrists.

Nevertheless, the Model T changed the world. What started as a minority activity became a mass-market “must-have”. Both what Ford made (the car itself) and how he made it (mass production) transformed society. And the very clunkiness of his early versions turned out to be another great strength: it spawned an apparently endless agenda for value-adding innovations.

Can anything ever compare to the profound social and economic changes wrought by the motor car? Perhaps not. But for marketers – anyone involved in the critical economic tasks of matching supply to demand and connecting buyers to sellers – there is a candidate: internet search. Don’t laugh. Like the motor car, it’s evolving rapidly from minority niche to mainstream market status. Googling is already a mass habit. And search-driven markets are experiencing explosive growth. Ebay is the fastest-growing company in corporate history. Five years ago, Google’s search-related online ads generated a meagre $220,000 (£113,000) of revenues. This year, the figure is closer to $2bn (£1.03bn).

So what? As an activity, search is as old as the hills. Everyone does “searching” when they go shopping. But now search is being turned into an added-value service. This shift from amateur activity to professional service cannot be underestimated. Search is a mechanism that enables consumers to take control of go-to-market processes. It up-ends traditional “push” marketing by letting consumers specify what sort of information they want to receive, about what, and when.

Along the way, it promises to solve a problem that has beset marketing since it was first invented. To work efficiently and effectively, matching and connecting needs rich, detailed, up-to-date, accurate information about demand. What the customer wants, in other words.

But when marketing was first invented, there were no mechanisms available to generate this information directly. So we had to invent indirect substitutes to fill the gap: market research to find out what customers wanted; advertising to make connections between buyers and sellers. The processes, structures, mindsets and measures we use were built on this foundation, of “push”.

Take any of marketing’s recent mega-debates: the shift from broadcast to direct; from mass to niche to one-to-one; media fragmentation; integrated marketing; customer relationship management; permission marketing. Take any debate you like. They all revolve around how to make push marketing work better. By making “pull” processes practically possible for the first time ever, search places all these controversies in the category of “storm in a tea cup”.

There are three things to note about search. First, it promises to open up huge new win-wins between buyers and sellers. The underlying motto of traditional advertising is “waste, waste, waste, just in case”: send many messages to many people just in case a few of them respond. In stark contrast, search-related information offers advertisers a near-100 per cent guarantee of targeted relevance, both in terms of content and timing.

The second thing to note about search is that today, it is extremely clunky. We’re only at the Model T stage of an entirely new industry. The opportunities for value-adding improvements are endless. Once consumers start down this road we want more comprehensive information, more reliability, objectivity, richness, detail.

There are many tough challenges here. Ideally, we want search processes that “understand” exactly what we are searching for. And before we start a search we often need help in knowing what to search for in the first place. Helping people clarify and articulate their needs is a key “added value”.

Today, all of these developments are already work-in-progress as portals, software companies, e-tailers and search-driven comparison shopping sites such as Amazon, Bizrate/Shopzilla, Microsoft, Shopping.com/ Dealtime and Yahoo! pursue the race. As service improvements come through, so the value and momentum of the search phenomenon will continue to build.

The broader potential of search mechanisms is illustrated by Google’s deal with the world’s great libraries to make the content of their books available to all and sundry. We really are witnessing a transformation in who has access to what information, when and how.

The third thing to note about search is its growth trajectory. The graph (left) illustrates the generic pattern of all markets which start small but experience explosive growth, while having some overlap with mature markets experiencing “GDP growth”. The actual curves depend on specific growth rates, but the pattern is universal. In the beginning the new market is so small that it is irrelevant. During this period the old market’s low percentage growth rate delivers much more new business in absolute terms than the exploding new market. But at a certain point – and very late in the day – the new market reaches critical mass. “Suddenly” its impact on the status quo is huge as it eats up “market share”. At the beginning of 2005, new search markets are still largely in the “irrelevant” phase. Compared to the marcoms status quo, they’re almost invisible. But the pattern is already unfolding. Search-based services don’t fit every consumer need. Their impact will vary widely across categories. They don’t herald “the death of advertising”. Indeed, search environments are perfect for certain types of advertising and direct marketing. And consumers’ searches will still be influenced by the ads they come across. Nevertheless, search does signal a fundamental flip in the marketing environment. We are moving from an environment where structures and processes are controlled and driven by sellers and their search for customers, to one where the key mechanisms and content will be driven by buyers and their search for value. Because search pre-empts and informs every other shopping process, the more consumers take on the search habit, the more traditional go-to-market processes will need to fit these habits. Whether you work in advertising, direct marketing, advertising-funded media, retailing, or for any company that relies on these mechanisms to go to market, the secrets of success are set to change. Perhaps not this year. But very soon.

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