SEM Challenge 101: Hiring Staff

While this is an exciting time for those of us who make our living within the world of search engine marketing, it is not without its challenges. In fact, the combination of search's complexity and its explosive growth has created one of our industry's biggest challenges: recruiting qualified SEM staff. It's an industry-wide problem--both for organizations performing their search marketing in-house, and for SEM firms and agencies looking for experienced professionals to serve their increasingly sophisticated clients.

But why is it so difficult? What makes it a challenge?

It's a new industry. One of the biggest contributors is simply the age of the industry. Search marketing is still quite young as a discipline. It is still developing--albeit at a rapid clip--and experienced practitioners to support it are just starting to emerge. And last I checked, colleges and universities weren't yet offering degrees in SEM. Hell, it was just five to six years ago that the roles of ecommerce manager and interactive advertising manager started to emerge. Today, search marketing jobs are in that same situation.



The skill set is complex. SEM's complexity also adds to the challenge. Qualified candidates require a variety of seemingly contradictory skills to be able to work effectively. One needs to be a marketer at heart, yet have client service (people) skills... possess copywriting abilities, yet have knowledge of HTML... understand Web site architecture, usability, and site navigation, and have the technical aptitude to employ sophisticated tools, while also possessing a keen linguistic sense. Overall, effective SEM requires the integration of many disciplines, and finding individuals that possess the right combination of all these qualities is as easy as scaling Mt. Everest in your pajamas. Frankly, at my company it takes an average of eight interviews before a candidate is hired.

Lack of standardization. Further exacerbating this hiring challenge is a lack of recognized industry standards. Today, every company has its own best practices, methodologies, tools, and training. Never mind the often-present "non-compete" issue. So even when you hire someone who has already performed SEM elsewhere, you probably need to introduce new ways of doing thing, break old habits, and teach different tools and unfamiliar processes. At times it's actually easier to hire an SEM "virgin" and shape him or her in your own mold, instead of trying to "un-teach" what someone has learned at a previous employer.

This lack of standardization not only impedes the growth of our industry because of the inability to easily transfer skills learned and mastered at one employer to a new employer, but because it also negatively affects the perceived integrity of the discipline in the eyes of organizations who are considering outsourcing their SEM for the first time. Chief marketing officers will shake their heads after listening to presentations from several different SEM firms, all of which seem to do things in drastically different ways. Which is the right way? Which is the industry standard? Neither. And both.

So why does it matter? Companies don't want their search marketing campaigns managed by inexperienced staff--and I don't blame them. They expect someone who knows his stuff and produces results. But if the industry is so young that it is unrealistic to expect that a seasoned professional with 5+ years of experience will always be available to manage a campaign--because so few of them exist--what can you do to make things better?

The key is to have a clearly defined and proven process in place to hire and train staff. In order to hire the right people, you must first define the core characteristics required for the position. Once you have the characteristics defined, you must interview candidates rigorously against those criteria. Once hired, new staff must be put through a standardized curriculum that is continually upgraded and supported by documentation, all the while working alongside a core of very experienced practitioners during an apprenticeship period. Such a standardized plan moves employees through a knowledge continuum and produces professionals equipped to produce the results clients seek.

So, instead of focusing solely on "years of experience" as a qualifier, companies looking to hire a SEM firm should also ask:

  • What skills and characteristics do you look for when hiring?
  • What kind of training does new staff receive?
  • Is there an apprenticeship program? Is your staff tested on its knowledge?
  • Are there milestones that staff members needs to reach before they are allowed to interact with clients? What are they?
  • How mature is your SEM process? Is it documented?
  • How often is it updated and re-taught?
  • How much is automation used to support your SEM process?
  • Do you have a base of knowledge within your organization so if the owner gets hit by a bus, all the company's intelligence is not lost?

    Bottom line, search marketing is white-hot and getting more so every day, but its growth is impeded by a greater demand for experienced professionals than currently exist in the marketplace. As the industry matures, seasoned practitioners will begin to fill out the ranks. But along the way, it is paramount to focus on the standards for hiring, the quality and quantity of training, as well as the maturity of the SEM process, in order to be confident of superior campaign results.

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