All Hands on Deck! Search Marketing Is Crossing The Chasm

Last week, I gathered in New York with 12 other search marketers for SEMPO's twice-yearly planning retreat. To kick off, we did a bit of brainstorming about the current state of the search marketing industry. Observations included the current build-or-buy-search- marketing-capabilities dilemma faced by the big agencies, the red-hot demand for anyone with search marketing experience, the sudden development of search marketing in-house groups in large organizations, and the current push for industry-wide certification of SEM practitioners.

Also, more than a few at the table mentioned that they've noticed a significant change in the prospects they're talking to--and the contact points within those companies. Today, our sales leads are more often Fortune 1000s than the latest online start-up. With increasing frequency, we're starting to get C-level interest at the table when talk turns to search.

"My God!" I thought to myself as we jotted our observations down on a flip chart, "Search is crossing the chasm!"



Chasm Dead Ahead

Geoffrey Moore's book Crossing the Chasm belongs on that small and select shelf of "must-reads" in technology marketing. It explores the fundamental break between early adopter and mainstream markets, and why so many companies founder in trying to make the transition between the two. For the ones that do, the reward is a sudden firestorm of demand.

Exactly three years ago now, I wrote a column asking if search marketing had crossed the chasm yet. My conclusion, (reinforced by a note of endorsement from Moore) was that search marketing had yet to do this. Until recently, I still thought we were squarely in the early adopter camp. Either search was practiced by aggressive, early adopter companies or by individuals in larger organizations that fit the early adopter profile. Budgets allocated to search by most "mainstream" organizations made it clear that it was an interesting experiment of limited scope, nothing more.

Calling All Pragmatists

But it seems that the climate is changing. One thing to remember about mainstream markets is that when they move, they tend to do so en masse. Search marketing is starting to show the early signs of a marketing channel that's ready to make the leap from early adopters to mainstream markets.

What does this mean for search? First of all, search is too limiting a definition. There is a built-in inventory bottleneck with search that will keep it from meeting the demand that will be generated when large advertisers move large budgets into the arena. People only search so much. The relatively tame growth curve of search usage will soon be outstripped by the steep incline of advertiser demand.

So we look to two additional markets that will move across the chasm in lockstep with search. I'll call them by more generic, all-inclusive labels. First of all, there's "consumer-initiated marketing." Search is the literal embodiment of this, but the search publishers will be finding other ways to enable consumers to reach out and connect with advertisers on the consumers' timeline, not the advertisers'. Secondly, there's "targeted accountable marketing." These are the channels that allow advertising messages to be more precisely targeted through behaviors, geography, demographics or areas of contextual interest, providing unprecedented accountability to the advertiser. Every single search publisher is heavily invested in this area, and this will continue.

The Local Search Wildcard

Another category of new advertising inventory that will begin to crack in 2007, and will turn into a flood in 2008, is local search. According to InfoUSA and the Kelsey Group, there are about 350,000 Web-based businesses in the US, and 4 million businesses with a brochure-ware site. That leaves almost 10 million businesses without a Web site at all. That's a total of almost 15 million businesses. There are no hard numbers for Google's advertiser base, but an educated guess would put it somewhat north of 300,000. So, even with businesses with a Web site, that means Google only has 6.9% market penetration currently. If it seems like search marketing is old-hat and everybody's doing it, it's probably because you're an early adopter and so are the people you hang out with. Add the businesses without Websites, most of which are only interested in local markets, and that penetration drops to an infinitesimal 2.3%. That's a ton of upside potential which all sits in the local market, currently throwing its money at other channels, such as the yellow pages, newspaper and radio.

And You Thought Google Had Too Much Money Now?

Let's do a little more math. Based on Google's reported revenue of approximately $6 billion, that averages out to about $20,000 per advertiser. That may sound impressive until you remember that a substantial portion of Google's advertisers are large, multi-million-dollar companies.

Let's assume that over the next three years search marketing does cross the chasm, and Google manages to capture 50% of businesses with a Web site. Also, let's assume that budgets loosen up substantially as search moves into the mainstream and more advertising options are open, increasing average spend up to $50,000. Neither of these predictions is overly optimistic, given a chasm-crossing scenario. And that doesn't even touch the 10 million Web-less businesses that are likely prospects of local search, or the global market. That puts Google's potential revenue at $208 billion. Currently, that would put Google at number 3 on the Fortune 500, right behind Exxon and Wal-Mart, and ahead of GM and Ford. Even if I'm wildly optimistic, those are numbers to pay attention to.

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