More On The SEM People Problem
People are just as important as automation in today's PPC search environment, and I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss additional characteristics that mark ideal SEM candidates. I hope this article is of value to those staffing in-house or agency search teams, as well as prospective candidates seeking to enter this very exciting field. So what other characteristics make for a successful SEM professional?
Creativity. Contrary to the belief espoused by many old-school agency folks that SEM work is inherently "uncreative," comfort with the creative components of SEM is actually one of the strongest determinants of candidate fitness and success. I always stress to my staff that the one common element of any paid search campaign is the fact that it directs users to a landing page, and landing pages are just the start of what's required to convert visitors into customers, repeat buyers, and more.
Candidates in client strategy and management roles should understand page/Web site best practices of structure, content, and design, which all influence conversion rate. In paid search, creativity is vital because all clicks come from copy in paid search text ads or from new graphical/display formats that are growing in popularity across search engines and other auction environments.
Language skills. Most SEM candidates find themselves working in roles requiring the rigorous analysis of elements within campaigns that contribute to performance. One of the most important candidate aptitudes is a keen eye towards proper grammar, sentence structure, and copywriting for marketing purposes. These skills are critical because these elements will remain a core feature of paid search campaigns (text ads) for the foreseeable future.
At my firm, we train new employees on title/description review, (including review of competitor creatives), assessment, and actual copywriting fairly early. Doing this is one of the best ways to ensure that employees "get" the fact that a primary lever controlling performance is the cause and effect of various creative messages in ads. .
Quantitative comfort. Candidates should feel comfortable and be truly interested in making decisions based on quantitative data at their fingertips. They should want to build business cases and strategies based on hard facts and enjoy proving out theories through trends, statistics, and clear data reporting. Consequently, we test all candidates for Excel skills to ensure there's quantitative comfort; we do this at a more general level across senior management candidates as well. These skills are vital because meetings and calls with clients invariably lead to discussions "about the numbers."
Passion! I'm sure you've heard the saying that performance is 80% attitude and 20% skill. In paid search, it's even higher (I'd say the split is 90/20). Based on the tactical and quantitative nature of paid search (which is much less design and emotionally oriented than TV, print, online display, and other media, which all have a "sexiness" that search lacks), candidates need to be a bit obsessed about the Web. By this I mean they should truly enjoy being online and be comfortable using technology, because they will be using tools and interfaces to data, settings, performance levers, etc. The fact that candidates have the power to execute decisions in real time (much like a stock trader) and immediately see cause/effect relationships should be exciting to them. Pushing and pulling various levers and testing elements (whether it's the candidate who will be doing this hands-on or a manager overseeing it) should be very cool to everyone you hire.
Additionally, candidates should be clear about their passion towards the analytical side of the business (campaign optimization, analysis, etc.) or the account/relationship management side of the business (account manager who leads presentations, client communication, team and project management, etc.). Candidates should have a true passion for both left and right brain elements of search marketing, but be clear that home base resides in a role that is either quantitative and focused on campaign optimization, or qualitative and focused on client communication and management. This is important because becoming an expert in all aspects is impossible; most aspects benefit from specialization and depth of skill in critical/material areas that will require employee focus.
Communication skills. Candidates should have the ability to communicate clearly and concisely across all roles. Search is riddled with potential tactical mishaps, integrated elements, data sharing, QA nightmares waiting to happen -- and of course, at the end of this is a client expectation, goal, or requirement that must be met. Even when evaluating entry-level or more tactically focused candidates, don't overlook their ability to break down communications into clear points, listen effectively, and document everything. Remember, these folks can make or break campaigns so don't skimp on maturity, responsibility, and their ability to communicate. Also, find account management and strategy candidates that can translate client goals and objectives into critical requirements and marching orders that can be assigned to team members clearly and be followed up on religiously. This is not an easy task, so think about questions and scenarios when interviewing candidates that can show you a little something about their leadership and communication skills when managing accounts and projects.
Relationship building. The ability to build and maintain strong relationships with clients that can weather the ups and downs of the dynamic and competitive nature of search is a highly prized SEM skill. Results will suffer at some point, and clear expectations, trust, and honest communication will always see things through. This skill is very hard to find and people who can do this well are truly golden. Our great relationship managers are like extensions of our clients: clients want to ask their opinion, get consistent, brutally honest feedback, and be confident that they rarely will be stumped by a problem (which further builds trust and allows higher level discussions). Consider exposure to client management situations on smaller/less complex accounts that can build confidence. Look for personalities that have a bit of overachiever in them, plus a desire to aggressively prove things wrong or right. Search can often feel like a battle, so find candidates that can take the heat and fight hard when the going gets tough because they believe in the data and direction it's pointing to.
As you can see, it takes a very special person to excel at SEM. Yes, it's a tall order, but your business or your clients' businesses are worth the attention on smarter recruiting, hiring, and training/ Although technology grabs the headlines, it's people who really make this industry work, and we as an industry need to do our utmost to attract such people, train and guide them well, and make sure that they have all the resources required to bring excellence to their jobs. All of this in turn drives fantastic results in search marketing.