Seven Lessons From Steve Jobs For Search Marketers

I just finished Walter Isaacson’s epic Steve Jobs biography. Beyond being a captivating (and surprisingly quick, considering its 571 pages) read about the life and times of one of the most influential and controversial people in technology, the book imparts some important lessons for search marketers.

1. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. This was the tagline that adorned the first Apple II brochure in 1977 and became a mantra that stuck. “The main thing is that we have to make things intuitively obvious,” Jobs said in discussing his design philosophy. Much of this approach was rooted in his Zen Buddhist training and Bauhaus influence. I see the results firsthand each time my three-year-old daughter swipes to open our iPad, pulls up the Netflix app and finds a Curious George video to watch instantly.

For search marketers, it’s easy to get lost in the complexity of data analysis and campaign management -- but sometimes, you have to step back and focus on the basics like creating a compelling call-to-action in your ad copy. Tell people what you want them to do. And clearly state why they should do it.

2. You don’t have to be first, you just have to be best.

The bitmapped graphical user interface created for the original Macintosh was first concepted by Xerox PARC and shown to Jobs in 1979. In an interview with Isaacson, Jobs boasts, “Picasso had a saying -- ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’ -- and we have always been shameless about stealing great ideas.”

I’m reminded of the scene in the “Social Network” movie where Zuckerberg tells the Winklevoss twins something to the effect of, “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you’d have invented Facebook.” The point is that it doesn’t matter if you come up with an idea; what matters is if you can execute on it.

In SEM, you don’t have to develop a novel approach to keyword development, campaign structure, or bid management, you just have to apply those tactics better than your competitors.

3. Block out all distractions. Jobs had an uncanny (and often unhealthy) ability to focus by setting his priorities and shunning anything else that vied for his attention. Jobs took this to the extreme by avoiding his health issues (he waited nine months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer before seeking conventional treatment) and even his family (he would go years without speaking to his daughter Lisa) but there is something to be said for being able to do just a few things -- and doing them well.

In the case of SEM, this means automating everything that can be automated and putting your personal energy into projects that can really move the needle. For example, it can be very tempting to spend all day managing long tail-keywords and bids when that can be handled automatically through a portfolio algorithm, freeing you up to focus on merchandising changes that could make the head (which typically accounts for 80% of your volume) perform much better.

4. When one door closes, another door opens.  Much has been made of Jobs’ fanaticism over creating closed (or as he’d like you to say -- integrated) products and platforms. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak wanted to include eight external slots on the Apple II for users to connect their own components. To Jobs this was “a threat to a seamless end-to-end user experience.” Sure enough, Jobs won out (the Apple II shipped with just two slots) and, to this day, Apple products are built with proprietary hardware and software that are not always compatible with other systems, not to mention “limited” feature sets – for example, no Flash on iPads. 

Even the App Store, which many equate with an open ecosystem, is a very closely regulated environment with Apple retaining full control over app approval.  Explains Jobs, “We do these things not because we are control freaks. We do them because we want to make great products, because we care about the user, and because we like to take responsibility for the entire experience rather than turn out the crap that other people make.” Compare this to the Microsoft philosophy for Windows or Google’s approach with Android, and you’ll see the different schools of thought.

From an SEM perspective, you’ll want to keep in mind the platform (open or closed) in which your ads are displayed across desktop and mobile devices. With iOS only running on iDevices, it’s a pretty controlled exposure and very affluent consumer target. Leverage device targeting accordingly.

5. Leave no stone unturned.  I’ve long believed that it’s the little things that make a big difference. Jobs took this to the extreme, obsessing over the minutest details in product development. For example, Jobs made his team create 20 different versions of the title bars for windows and documents before being satisfied. “Can you imagine looking at that every day?” he asked his team when they complained about the tiny tweaks. “It’s not just a little thing, it’s something we have to do right.”

Jobs also carefully scrutinized the aesthetics of circuit boards inside computers that no consumer would ever see, sending people back to the drawing board for memory chips that had “lines too close together.” When engineers asked why it mattered, Jobs replied, “I want it to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.”

To succeed in SEM, you have to maintain the utmost self-discipline and tend to every last detail. You never know which variable is going to be the one to make or break your campaign.

6. Nice guys finish last. But you don’t have to be a bad guy to finish first. The book is littered with countless tales of Jobs berating employees, partners, suppliers, and anyone else who got his in his way -- or, as he’d like to think of it, didn’t meet his expectations. Here’s how Issacson assessed Jobs’ nasty temperament: “It hindered him more than helped him. But it did, at times serve a purpose… Dozens of the colleagues whom Jobs most abused ended their litany of horror stories by saying he got them to do things they never dreamed possible.”

To be sure, as Tom McNichol wrote in The Atlantic, “There are plenty of very successful companies that aren't led by assholes… The fact is, Steve Jobs didn't succeed because he was an asshole. He succeeded because he was Steve Jobs.”

It follows that in SEM, or business in general, you have to find the right balance between motivation and defecation.

7. Life is short. Be sure to stop and smell the roses. One thing everyone can agree on when it comes to Steve Jobs is that he died too young.  As the stress of hitting your year-end goals engulfs every fiber of your being, remember that it’s just SEM; we’re not saving lives here.

As the saying goes, “No one on their deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work.’” Jobs might have been thinking that -- but, instead, his last words were, “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.” 

Tags: apple, search
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1 comment about "Seven Lessons From Steve Jobs For Search Marketers".
  1. Alex Funk from Covario Inc , December 2, 2011 at 6:40 p.m.
    Aaron - great tie in of the book's life and business lessons and how search marketers - or any marketers for that matter - can apply those to their job. Funny, while reading I worried about the book's effect on rule #6: The last thing we need is young entrepreneurs reading this book and thinking its ok for someone to act like steve jobs did because a-holes finish first in this tale (i.e Michael Lewis and Liar's Poker). Issacson did a nice job trying to piece together why someone who talked so much about "love" was also so hurtful/harsh to people (and even his own health as it turns out). Passion is a great motivator. See you in Utah next week cheers, Alex