10 SEM Lessons I Learned From The Chicago Marathon

On Sunday, I ran my first (and last) marathon. Here are some of the key lessons I learned, and how they can be applied to search engine marketing:

1. Training is key. You can’t go out and run 26.2 miles without having completed a thorough training plan. Well, you could, but it’s not recommended.  The same self-discipline required to stick to a marathon training schedule is required to stay on the forefront of SEM. With platforms and algos changing daily, it’s crucial to make training and development a regular part of your routine. Scour the trades. Stay current on your certifications. Go to conferences. Read a book every now and then. And even (nay, especially!) when you think you’ve got it mastered, make time to test and refresh your abilities. 

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Two weeks before the marathon, I came down with a nasty case of shin splints. At first I just decided to grin and bear it. But after one of my legs got super swollen, I decided to seek help. I obsessively googled “shin split cure” and came up empty. So I reached out to friends and family who were runners, triathletes, and the like. Turns out they had some great advice for me. I got some physical therapy, began doing daily stretches, and (mostly) stayed off my feet until the race.

Likewise, don’t try to go it alone in search marketing. There are so many experts out there who are more than happy to share their insights. Ask your colleagues. Tweet with #ppcchat. Engage on Search Engine Roundtable or YouMoz. No matter what issue you’re facing, I guarantee someone else out there has tackled it before.

3. Strong support is invaluable. I can’t begin to describe the feeling of having people (strangers) cheering every step of the way.  It was amazing how many folks came out and lined the race course. I saw some great signs, too. I always trained by myself and I could not have anticipated the adrenaline rush you get from people screaming your name or, in my case, your company’s name. (Yes, I wore a Kenshoo shirt.)

In SEM, the fastest path to success is surrounded on all sides by key influencers and advocates. To achieve your agenda and deliver results, you need proper buy-in and support from other departments like IT and finance. You also need to make sure all the folks handling non-search media are in lock step with you and rallying around a common goal.

4. Set proper expectations.  I told everyone I was planning to run an 8:30 mile, but came out of the gate a lot faster. As a result, I missed my family at the 10-mile mark, which was our first planned meetup. Thankfully, I caught them at mile 21, but the disappointment on both sides that festered for 90 long minutes could have been avoided by setting expectations more carefully. (Or if those pesky alert apps would have actually worked!)

So, too, in SEM, it’s critical to properly calibrate the expectations of all stakeholders. Don’t overpromise, as there are any number of outside influences (Pandas, Penguins, Hummingbirds, oh my!) that can cause the best-laid plans to go awry.

5. Pace yourself. After running the first 15k faster than anticipated, it was a struggle to keep up the pace. I didn’t have much energy in the tank for the finish.

In SEM, it can be tempting to try all your whiz-bang optimization tricks the minute you dig in to an account, but you’re better off trying just a few things, waiting to see the impact, and then progressively enhancing your program from there. That way, you can isolate variables to see what’s really working, and keep a few tricks up your sleeve for when you really need to combat a new competitor… or get that promotion and raise. ;)

6. Stay nourished. For the first 10 weeks of my training, I didn’t eat or drink at all before or during my runs. I just didn’t want anything weighing me down in my belly. Looking back, I can’t believe how foolish I was. Luckily my dad, a longtime runner, snapped me out of it after he saw me come back from a 17-mile run (sans water) barely able to speak. He told me how important it was to stay hydrated and how his fastest marathon included a port-o-potty pit stop. During the race, I drank water every couple of miles and put down two of those energy gel goos along the way. It made a huge difference! 

In SEM, nourishment can come from many places. My favorite is the Search Insider Summit, which is truly a feast for the senses with the most beautiful venues, topnotch food, and high-west whiskey. Oh, and there’s lots of good content and conversation, too!

7. Keep it up… don’t stop. I ran the race in memory of my Grandma Nicky, who was a remarkable woman and avid runner. Her motto (in running and life) was “Keep it up… don’t stop.” I uttered those words of encouragement multiple times throughout the marathon to keep me going.

Sometimes, in SEM, you hit the proverbial wall. Your landing page tanks. Your bid policy plateaus. Your site gets penalized. That’s when you have to dig deep and find the courage to carry on.

8. Even when you think you’re done, you’re not. After crossing the finish line, my feeling of euphoria was quickly replaced with dread when I realized I still had to walk two miles to my car.

In SEM, there is no finish line. Your work is never done. There’s always something else you can be doing to improve performance. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that your tuit list is ever complete.

9. Enjoy the journey! I truly enjoyed the entire process of completing the marathon. The training runs were a great way to get some me-time, which is few and far between these days.  And every part of the race itself was memorable.

SEM is a journey as well. There will be ups and downs as you beat your goals and then get beat back down. Enjoy the process. Stay focused on the outcome, but not at the expense of the input. All the great search professionals I know love their jobs and revel in their geekery.

10. Know your limits. Not everyone can run a marathon. I feel fortunate to have completed one. After seeing the toll it’s taken on my body (and my family), I know it’s time to hang up the laces. I really only wanted to do one anyway. It was a bucket list kinda thing. And, while my marathon career may have been short-lived, the results will last forever. (Or until changes their CMS and forgets to set up 301 redirects.)

In SEM, you have to face reality, too. There’s no such thing as unlimited budget and resources. There’s always some constraint with which we must manage our programs. Remember this when setting your goals and/or bid rules.

When it comes to achieving success in sport or search, remember the wise words of Yogi Berra: It’s “90% mental and the other half is physical.”

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