1. Understand business fundamentals. At the highest level of generality, SEM candidates need to understand business and marketing fundamentals, not necessarily possess a perfect agency background or search-related experience. When sports teams perform poorly, usually the "fundamentals" are to blame. What do coaches do? They go back to the basics and drive practice of the fundamentals like hitting and catching (baseball), blocking and tackling (football), and synergies that make for success (an understanding of multiple elements that must be considered in tandem). Fundamentals are crucial; there are countless examples of less talented athletes whose success came from being grounded in fundamentally sound practices executed with discipline. Their reliance on fundamentals as their foundation is usually what creates their greatness.
2. Translate key differentiators into tactical decisions. Can the candidate extract key differentiators and brand attributes from client discussions, review of online and offline marketing materials, competitive review and analysis? Often the keys to the castle in SEM are found when people deeply understand a brand and company's products and translate this into smart tactical decisions relating to keyword, creative, and landing page selection, testing, and account/campaign management. Ask questions of candidates to see if they consider the bigger picture and understand that searchers are actually people who will align themselves to brands and products presenting clear benefits and solutions to them. Unfortunately, many SEM professionals don't get human and emotional enough because they tend to think exclusively in terms of keywords, clicks, bids, etc.
3. Embrace a holistic view. Strive to hire candidates who are like detectives or doctors. They should show an interest in understanding all the campaign "vital signs." They need to look holistically at how a client's mission or vision ties to specific annual, quarterly, and monthly goals. They should also understand the overall media mix, especially where it is inefficient and where it is performing well. They should always ask for schedules of online and offline marketing initiatives, CPA and ROI metrics, plus conversion rates across various channels. They should be aware of a client's Web site strategy across various marketing initiatives (content leveraged, desired user paths, strategic intent of pages, etc.).
For retailers, they must understand profit margins per product and ROI or CPA thresholds that will push the envelope, versus those that will put them "in the red." For all companies, seasonal and geographic factors are always needed as well. Beware of candidates who don't strive to understand exactly what the target audience for a specific campaign is; this is a fundamental that I believe gets a bit lost in search. Again, clicks are people, and the "M" in SEM stands for "marketing." So make sure candidates can think as marketers do. When candidates ask the right questions, they're emulating great management consultants who dig into the operational elements of a business in order to drive innovation and change. This characteristic also goes for analysts in quantitative roles or staff in tactical execution roles. What you want in search is someone who seeks out information that will lead to the best decision through a holistic, intelligent view. This is a characteristic that both generalists and specialists on an SEM team should have.
4. Demonstrate a diagnostic approach to solving problems and uncovering opportunities. Whether it's a candidate that will manage client relationships, quantitative analysis, or tactical execution, those possessing a strong ability to pull key points out of a vast amount of data and weave certain interrelated elements into a solution or opportunity are golden.
At my company, one of the biggest challenges we face is choosing the appropriate analytical framework when we brief clients on a regular basis. Paid search naturally comes with an ocean of data. But what should a weekly status call focus on when a campaign has hundreds of ad groups, hundreds of thousands of keywords, and various other factors that contribute to performance? Better yet, what should annual/quarterly planning and presentations focus on?
The best candidates review trends and the cause and effect in campaigns from changes in performance vs. a baseline (control), whether it was intended through testing or caused by market factors. They will then turn these key findings into clear opportunities or strategic recommendations with associated tactics that are the building blocks to getting there. This is a true skill you can identify only through questions designed to uncover a candidate's thought process when presented with a challenging account/campaign scenario. Make sure to do this when interviewing candidates, and keep an eye on what they focus on when presented with various scenarios. With a wealth of options for reporting, analysis, agenda items, and presentation topics, do you think they'd focus on things that are material, or would opportunities go missed and priorities get pushed to the back burner?
As you can see, it takes a very special kind of person to be an effective SEM candidate. But there are other equally important, equally indispensable attributes that I want to discuss, so please stay tuned for my next column.