Striking And Searching

The Writers Guild of America launched its long-awaited strike. How will this event affect marketers, search engines, and consumers' online media behavior? SEMCO, the union for search engine marketing columnists, hasn't quite caught on, so I'm remaining on the job to answer these questions and more.

Most consumers aren't going to care about the WGA strike, and they're not going to notice it anytime soon. Google's Hot Trends showed no mention of the strike or the WGA Friday, Saturday (when the strike was announced), or Sunday. On Monday November 5, the term "writers strike" finally made an appearance at number 52 at "medium hotness," or a mere two bars out of five, well behind other entries that day including references to Food Network star Giada de Laurentiis expecting a baby girl, Google's Android mobile platform announcement, and the shooting of a rare albino deer in Minnesota. As much as Americans love TV, our patience quickly tires of labor disputes unless they're mediated by Oprah, Dr. Phil, or Kim Kardashian (an aside: a colleague came in here while I was Googling Kardashian's name to check the spelling, leading me to wonder whether my colleague or Google is my greater privacy concern).



Here are some predictions of what should happen with search and online media if this strike lasts a few months:

1. Some TV-related searches decline. While it's on the air, a program like "The Late Show with David Letterman" will inspire people to search for a number of reasons:

  • To find out when a guest will be on the air
  • To look up his daily Top Ten list
  • To search for the video or a transcript of a funny segment they saw or heard about from someone else

    Traditional media, especially television, is one of the best ways to drive searching, and that fuel source will keep drying up the longer the strike persists.

    2. Online activities won't change dramatically. If new content stopped appearing on most Web sites for several months, people would probably start watching more TV. It doesn't work out so neatly the other way around. At home, it's common for people to go online while watching TV, so if the background noise isn't there, they'll still continue their online behavior.

    If some online activities do show increases over the next several months, it will be hard to attribute much or any of that to the strike. Online video consumption keeps increasing each month, and people keep growing more comfortable watching full-length episodes of TV shows online. Correlating anything will be practically impossible. If more people catch up on episodes of "30 Rock" on the Hulu channel of AOL Video, is it because NBC is airing more reruns in case of a prolonged strike, or is it because AOL Video is now featuring more full-length episodes, thus making them more accessible?

    3. Entertainment marketers will more aggressively promote online offerings. Entertainment marketers usually have a set goal with each of their online campaigns: promote their online content, or drive people to consume media offline (tune in to TV shows, watch a movie in the theaters). It won't be a perfectly clean shift of budgets going from trying to drive tune-in to trying to drive Web traffic, as the budgets are usually run by different departments. However, given the importance marketers place on staying relevant to their audiences, expect some degree of a shift to happen when tune-in goals become secondary.

    Display advertising will benefit far more than search from such a shift, as will behavioral marketing programs like retargeting. As mentioned in the first point, searches should gradually decline for shows airing only reruns, so marketers will need to find other ways to generate awareness.

    There will also be some marketers tapping into Plan C for entertainment marketers: promoting commerce. Comedy Central has a greatest hits DVD out for "The Colbert Report," along with Colbert's book "I Am America (And So Can You!)." All this can help maintain the relevance of the brand.

    That will be the biggest challenge for entertainment -- staying relevant when there's nothing new. It's an especially interesting question for Comedy Central, which just launched with eight years of video archives but now lacks its best promotional vehicle of a nightly show to drive people to the site. Once again, we're faced with the reality that search doesn't happen in a vacuum; there's always something triggering it. In its own small way, one of the aftershocks of the writers' strike is a searchers' strike.

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