Commentary

You Say 'Tomato,' I Say, 'Whole Foods': Use Paid Search To Get Your Message Out!

Being a Brit, the whole "you say tomato, I say tomahto" deal has always been a little bit of a running joke since I moved to the States. But now it's taken on a whole new meaning. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration called for a "tomato recall," as some tomatoes from some states are suspected carriers of salmonella. Since mid-April, there have been about 145 reported cases, including at least 23 hospitalizations, in approximately 17 states. Personally though, I don't have an affinity for a particular brand, type or producer of tomatoes, so when I hear the words "recall," what registers with me is "stay away." Unless I am educated otherwise.

Here's where the immediacy of paid search can be used. Many companies affected by the tomato recall responded to the situation responsibly and quickly. Whole Foods pulled suspected members of the round red fruit family off their shelves almost immediately. Other stores like Costco stated in press interviews that the tomatoes they stocked were salmonella-free, since they did not come from any of the affected states. McDonald's, Taco Bell, Wal-Mart and Outback Steakhouse were among the other large chains that took action following federal recommendations. Yet none of these companies used paid search as a vehicle to convey to consumers the responsible actions they were taking and to reassure people that they tomatoes they used were and are safe.

That's a shame, because the demand in terms of search volume has been there. Looking at Google Trends reveals that searches for "tomato scare," "tomato recall" and "salmonella" have all increased in the last week. The new volume indicator from Google Trends shows that the search traffic for "salmonella" is currently 40 times greater than it normally is.

And with demand comes opportunity -- opportunity for companies like McDonald's and Whole Foods to use paid search to help manage their brand's reputation online and to position themselves as responsible businesses. Taking action through paid search is especially important since these brands appear heavily in the organic listings for search terms such as "tomato scare." The reality is that journalists and bloggers are writing about these businesses' response to the recall. Conversations about these brands are taking place all across the Web, and are being found via the search engines. Yet these brands, by not using the immediacy paid search affords such news-driven conversations, are not actively participating in the dialogue that's taking place.

This was one of the many topics we discussed at John Battelle's Conversational Marketing conference last week. When we looked at the search results on Google for "tomato scare" at the conference last Tuesday, there were no advertisers appearing for this search term. At the time I wrote this column, though -- last Thursday -- that was no longer the case. While brand marketers from the large U.S. supermarkets, fast-food and restaurant chains were not seizing the day, two companies were. First up was The New York Times, which is running the ad "Tomato Sales Halted: The New York Times has the latest news on concerns about salmonella.' The other advertiser was LawyersandSettlement.com. This ad read "Tomato Salmonella Help: Suffer from salmonella contaminated red tomatoes? Choose a lawyer."

As a news-led organization, the Times has consistently used paid search to leverage news-driven stories and in turn drive traffic to its Web site. And if the lawyers are willing to pay for the click, then you know there's both money and reputation to be made out of it.

So seize the opportunity and don't let newspapers steal all the headlines. Marketers who are quick to employ news-driven paid search strategies will see quick returns for their brand's reputation.

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