Live from the Search Insider Summit: SEM Agencies Step Up Offerings

PARK CITY, UTAH -- "The days of SEM agencies just focusing on paid search are over."

Dave Honig, vice president, media services for Didit, galvanized an entire panel's worth of discussion with that one statement during the Search Insider Summit on Friday. Honig was joined by executives from Yahoo, Grey San Francisco and The Search Agency for a discussion of the growing trend of SEM firms taking on non-search campaigns.

As the engines have increasingly begun to offer display, social media, RSS, widgets and other kinds of inventory, search agencies are stepping up to plan and execute these campaigns--often leveraging search data and analytics to forecast performance, better target audiences and deliver results that are more brand- than direct response-oriented.

Using a Hellmann's case study, Yahoo Senior Agency Development Director Kelly Graziadei illustrated just how effective an integrated search, display and traditional media campaign can be at elevating brand perception.

For the campaign, Hellmann's included the call to action "Go to Yahoo and search REAL FOOD" in their TV and print ads, as well as the copy on mayonnaise jars. As a result, searches for "real food" increased by more than 8,200% and searches for "Hellmann's" increased by more than 50%, compared to stats from six months prior, Graziadei reported.

But the true success of the campaign stemmed from efforts that took the experience beyond a simple search. When users searched for "real food," they didn't just find a plain text link to the Hellmann's home page: Yahoo and Hellmann's worked together to build a branded Hellmann's subsection on Yahoo Food, complete with original video content, blogs and social media features.

Within the first month of the campaign, over 900 users had signed up to share their photos, stories and experiences as part of the Real Food group on Yahoo. "Search gave consumers a way to engage with the Hellmann's brand, not just find information," Graziadei pointed out.

But not every attempt to integrate search with display, TV and other media is guaranteed to work quite as effectively--and there haven't been many examples of such successes publicized, a likely reason for clients' hesitation about shifting non-search business over to their search firms.

Session attendees asked panelists how they approach the challenges of gaining client confidence and assuring them that they can develop and execute multichannel campaigns despite having search as their main focus.

Graziadei observed that much of the concern to date has stemmed from SEM firms typically being inexperienced when it came to the creative aspect of display and other non-search campaigns.

To address this, said Honig, Didit's team spent the last year learning the nuances of graphical and other ads, hiring staff with traditional and digital creative experience--and educating advertisers about their progress. "That's why we're starting to see more of the silos breaking up, and tapping a more diverse budget in addition to search," he said.

Despite the new focus on broadening the scope of search agencies, the panelists agreed that the core search tenets of SEM and SEO would continue to be vital disciplines in their own right. They also concurred that, while many of the more well-known independent firms have been snapped up by holding companies, there will continue to be search-centric stand-alones in the space.

"We've seen some consolidation, but I think the industry is still trying to find out what the best model is for integrating the search practice with other forms of advertising," Graziadei said. "But there are nuances from an execution perspective that SEM firms just have a better grasp of--and that's why they'll continue to be important in their own right."

Mike Jarvinen, director of search marketing for The Search Agency, agreed. "Clients are coming to us for expanded services, but we can't get into every single facet of online advertising--so that leaves room to work with other agencies for tools and services that we don't provide," he said. "But there will still be differentiation, because not every interactive agency understands the core competencies of search."

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