Commentary

Marketing Machinists

In the aftermath of the tragic Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco earlier this month, one theory that has emerged is that a combination of pilot error and instrumentation failure caused the crash. In this scenario, the pilots – who were relatively new to flying this type of airplane – were overly reliant on their cockpit instruments to tell them if they were flying at the proper speed, at the proper height. When the cockpit instruments failed to work properly, the pilots – so accustomed to their technology always being accurate– didn’t realize the problem until it was way too late.

The SEM world has not gotten to the point that the airline world has, where humans can apparently expect machines to do pretty much all the work for them. Still, there’s no doubt technology’s importance is growing.

At my agency, we license technology for a whole host of services. It’s not surprising, then, that one of the first questions I’m asked by a potential client is “What software do you use?” This question represents a bundle of anxiety in the mind of the potential client. The question could mean:

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            •            Do you use market-leading technology, so if you screw up my account, I won’t get fired?

            •            Do you have magical technology that will help me outperform my competitors – who have better economics and better conversion funnels?

            •            Do you use any technology at all, because I don’t understand SEM and surely no one can understand it without some whiz-bang complicated technology?

            •            I can’t tell the difference between agencies, so perhaps your technology choice is one way for me to differentiate you from all the others?

            •            Please tell me that you use the technology we currently use, so I don’t have to ask my IT team to install new pixels!

This can be a reasonable question to ask – it just has to be put in the proper context. Yes, SEM is complex (and getting more complex), so technology is important. And yes, implementing new technology can be a pain, especially if you either don’t have a great rapport with your IT team or lack an IT team altogether! But technology is rarely a magic bullet that will transform a lemon campaign into a swan (sorry for that mixed metaphor).

It turns out that – as with airplane technology – marketing technology is only as good as the people who operate it. Indeed, part of the job of the modern SEM is to select, implement, and use the right technology. There is so much SEM-specific technology out there that there are now numerous infographics trying to help you keep up with it all (see here and here).. So you do need a smart SEM who can wade through all the flawless canned demos and PowerPoints and actually figure out what is helpful and what is not.

More importantly, however, you need those smart SEMs to use their brains to make smart decisions for your business. From understanding the impact of changes to ad network interfaces (like Enhanced Campaigns) to deciding which match type to use, to budget allocation across different search engines and different media channels, success or failure in SEM and online marketing in general still depends on humans, not technology. If I was choosing between different SEM agencies, I’d much rather have 30 minutes to sit down with my potential account management team at the different agencies than sit through a 30-minute demo of their technology.

Maybe someday we will live in a world where your choice of technology really is the driving force behind a winning and losing marketing campaign, but that day has definitely not yet arrived. I’m reminded of the signs on two computer labs at my college: one of them said “artificial intelligence lab” and the one on the lab next to it said “natural intelligence lab.” I’ll side with the humans every time!

3 comments about "Marketing Machinists".
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  1. Kevin Lee from Didit, July 29, 2013 at 11:46 a.m.

    Indeed. When we look at the gains in efficiency and/or volume at a given ROI within the first couple of months after a client comes on board the lift is nearly always a combination of both expertise and technology. A technology can only optimize the asset it is given. Humans can make sure the search campaign (the asset) is more valuable. Of course during a pitch meeting people always want to see the technology (even when they aren't qualified to judge it). For that matter some prospects aren't able to compare the expertise of the account management teams either ;-)

  2. Jeff Schlueter from Nexidia Inc., July 29, 2013 at 11:46 a.m.

    Whoa there pardner! Since when was there ever a question of faulty readings from the instrumentation? The article you linked to certainly didn't mention anything like this. And nothing I've seen or read would indicate that the instruments were operating outside of their normal parameters. I think you chose a bad example to make your point.

  3. David Rodnitzky from 3Q Digital, July 29, 2013 at 7:18 p.m.

    @Kevin: I agree. No technology or human can turn straw into gold!

    @Jeff: This has been one of the potential causes that the NTSB has been investigating. Perhaps that article doesn't really spell it out. This one does a little more: http://www.manufacturing.net/news/2013/07/monitoring-cockpit-systems-not-easy-for-pilots

    "One of the issues that have emerged in the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the accident is whether the pilots, who were supposed to be watching airspeed indicators, were aware the plane was traveling at speeds so dangerously slow that it was at risk of losing lift and stalling.

    The flight's pilots set a target airspeed of 137 knots for crossing the runway's threshold. The plane reached speeds as low as 103 knots just before its landing gear and then its tail collided with a rocky seawall at the end of the runway, shearing off the tail, dumping three flight attendants onto the tarmac and sending the rest of the plane spinning and sliding.

    Dismukes cautioned that it's too soon to reach conclusions about whether the three Asiana pilots who were in the Boeing 777's highly-automated cockpit were closely monitoring the plane's airspeed, "but what was going on there in terms of monitoring systems obviously is going to be a crucial issue."

    Robert Sumwalt, an NTSB board member, said: "The question is, did the pilots recognize they were slow? And if not, why not?"

    The board's investigation hasn't turned up any mechanical or computer problems with the plane, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said at briefing last week."

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