Why Do All SEM Agencies 'Sound The Same'?

True story: my colleague Kevin Lee was speaking at a big trade show recently and happened to run into a former prospect after his talk. This prospect (a big online retailer whose name I won't mention, but that you'd instantly recognize if I did) had chosen another SEM agency (whose name you'd instantly recognize, as well). Kevin asked the prospect how his search campaign was now faring.

"Terrible!" answered the former prospect, followed by a litany of complaints about how the SEM agency he picked had almost "run him out of business."

"So who's running your PPC campaigns now?" asked Kevin.

"We're doing it in-house and we're managing it manually."

At this point, Kevin asked the former prospect why he didn't simply choose a more competent SEM agency, at which point the former prospect huffed that "it's impossible to choose one, because you SEM agency guys all sound the same," before making a quick exit.

"Wow," I thought after hearing Kevin's story. If our former prospect is right, and all SEM agencies really do "sound the same," everybody in the SEM agency business is facing "a failure to communicate" of "Cool Hand Luke" Proportions (link: ). Because while everybody in the SEM agency biz knows that there are tremendous differences in the quality of work provided by one SEM agency over another, that's obviously not the way that the outside world sees us.

In this article, I want to explore why this peculiar perception persists -- so here's my take on why "all SEM agencies sound the same."

1. Jargonized, unintelligible pitches. Nobody who's the CMO, CFO, or CEO of a major company with a major search budget is stupid. But they may be ignorant about the mind-numbing minutiae of our business, which they don't teach at Harvard or Wharton. So when an SEM agency rep goes into a room with a CMO, CFO, or CFO and immediately starts spewing out advanced terminology, acronyms, and other argot, it's quite likely that he's not communicating at all. Nor does it help that, a few hours later, another rep from another SEM will walk into the same room, and spew out a bunch of different, but equally unintelligible, jargon.

Why do prospects think we all "sound the same?" Because we do, insofar as our pitches are all equally unintelligible. Maybe if more of us abandoned our look-alike 55-slide PowerPoint presentations and started speaking in plain language about why clients should choose us, we'd all be better off.

2. Failure to differentiate SEM agency offerings. SEM agencies are a lot like law firms: you shouldn't hire a high-priced IP lawyer when you need a simple will drafted, nor should you look to the Yellow Pages to find an attorney qualified to fight off a multimillion dollar lawsuit. As I mentioned before, there are real differences among SEM agencies. Some have great technology but lousy client services; others don't charge enough to deliver promised service levels. Prospects need to be honestly apprised about a given agency's limitations, as well as its strengths, in a straightforward way. Not being candid about these issues leads to the perception that we "all sound the same," a polite way of saying that we're all so desperate for business that we're willing to take any client on without regard to whether we can really deliver on his business goals.

3.  Absence of objective  benchmarking. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers all must pass through rigorous peer-certification before hanging out a shingle to practice. Unfortunately, anybody with a slick Web site, a secretary, and a bid management software license can get into the SEM agency business, and there's really no easy way to judge whether he's a star or a sham. (Sure, Jupiter does do agency shoot-outs every few years. But these shoot-outs don't happen often enough to provide an accurate predictor of the results you'll actually get from a SEM agency, because staff and management changes may have occurred between the report publication and the time you sign on with a new search AOR.) Until this industry develops a systematic way of measuring SEM agencies' effectiveness and suitability-to-task, prospects must judge us on our subjective promises, not our objective performance. How ironic it is that in the SEM field, which is ruled by results and numbers and objective success metrics, there aren't any objective success metrics for SEM agencies themselves? If you don't formalize what good practices in SEM are, you can't possibly come up with a meaningful definition of "malpractice."

This industry is in a bad way. But there's still hope for SEM agencies, if we start doing a better job of communicating. I was always a big fan of Sy Syms, whose pitch was very simple: "an educated consumer is our best customer." Sy knew that there would always be plenty of people in this world who were perfectly happy buying a cheap suit off a gas pipe rack at Bonds, but that's not who he wanted as a customer. Educating prospective customers of SEM agencies won't be as easy, because explaining the fine points of bidding algorithms is a lot harder than selling the virtues of Super 100 wool.  But if we as an industry can't handle this task, we have nobody to blame but ourselves when our prospects tell us that "all you SEM agency guys sound the same.



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