Why you should never let anyone tell you search marketing isn’t creative

2nd of May 2018

Michelle Bourke


I had just received a call from our recruiter.

“He said no – he just didn’t think the role was creative enough”, she said with a resigned sigh.

We were four months in to a marathon recruitment drive for a digital account director and I was exhausted. I’d found it hard to find great people before, but never this hard. In the process we had burned what seemed like hundreds of hours in countless interviews, meticulously questioning, listening to understand cultural fit, sharing our philosophies and discussing answers.

After turning down many and being turned down by others, we were at what appeared to be an impasse. I’d wrapped my brain around the problem so hard it felt like a wrung out wet towel, like a game of twister I was in the process of losing.

Search folks get it. You don’t need to educate someone already working in search marketing just how cool, important and exciting this area of digital marketing is. But as our recruiter Jas and I mused over the phone, coming up with our hundredth hypothesis as to why this role was so hard to fill, we realised – an Account Director can get a job at any kind of agency. So why go to a digital agency specialising in search if you have the option of 10,000 other agencies across Australia with every possible combination of creative specialty?

That evening, while trying my very best to get some space from the problem, a thought exploded like a tiny hippocampus bomb in my brain. I hadn’t deeply explained the world of search and most importantly, everything that made it amazing, to all the people we were interviewing. It wasn’t their fault. Just as some of our customers start out, search is foreign to them. Perhaps a little scary even. They have no real point of reference because there are so few agencies who specialise deeply in this space. I felt rather dull for not realising earlier.

I remembered that one of our senior SEO strategists had spent the first half of his entire career as a 3D animator before moving into search, that my whole university degree was in broadcast journalism and I had produced feature films, our content marketing specialist had started her career as a graphic designer, one of our SEO specialists had started his career as an audio engineer and musician. The list went on. So what on earth would excite and attract all these deeply creative people to the art of search marketing?

The Mirror Of Truth Foresight Search Marketing Cartoon

My theory? Search reveals the deepest, most raw part of who we are as humans. It holds a mirror to our insecurities and to our unspoken desires. Behind the jumble of words and phrases and synonyms are the truths, lies, hopes and fears we silently type in that almost holy search box, prepared to find an instant answer within just two pages (or maybe just the top two results…depending on your patience).

Search is about those moments where we are engaged and emotionally invested in seeking answers, in asking questions, in being given advice. We are at our most vulnerable when we search.

And that knowledge, that insight; it’s one of the most powerful, humbling and exciting things you can work with in marketing today.

In the same way as we live our lives, these search terms range from the mundane to the insane, from “how to buy a house” to “how to make fluffy slime.” Yes. That is a thing. And I bet you didn’t expect it to be more popular than understanding how to buy a house. But yes. It is.

How to make fluffy slime keywords screenshot
How to buy a house keywords screenshot

Have you also had the experience of being about to search for something only to be distracted by the list of “What’s Trending” searches on Google’s Chrome mobile app and completely forget what you were about to search? One minute you’re looking for a recipe on pancakes, the next minute you’re knee deep in an article about a plane engine exploding mid flight

Whats trending Google screenshot

Now other people’s thoughts and experiences are hijacking our own when it comes to search behaviour thanks to sometimes self fulfilling algorithms.

All these nuances mean that the world of messaging is splintered, shattered into a thousand different pieces across dozens of channels that each of us spend tiny moments on throughout our already fragmented day.

Gone are the days when a marketer would hone three beautifully crafted core value differentiators. In search, we must hone a hundred of them, each one to fit the mood and step in the journey of the customer. We must deeply understand their journey to be able decipher and work backwards to where they are at in their decision making process.

On top of that, don’t expect your online audience to behave rationally or in the way they’ve told you they would. It’s human nature to reveal one thing on a survey and then promptly go and behave completely differently in the wild. Just because someone says they aren’t price sensitive on your product survey, doesn’t mean they won’t search “cheap wine”.

The Rational Consumer Foresight Search Marketing Cartoon

Just because someone says they’re brand loyal, doesn’t mean they haven’t searched for “Your brand name vs…” and waited to see what Google has to tell them about your competitors and what their alternative options could be.

Slack vs and Westpac vs Google Search Screenshot

In 2018, the concept of a search engine has completely changed. We can no longer think of a search engine ubiquitously as “Google”. Instead, we need to be thinking of a search engine as any technology that indexes and stores a list and description of ‘stuff’ and upon someone searching (and think of searching as what we ‘say’, not just what we ‘type’), it reveals what it considers to be the most relevant options.

When you speak to Google Home or Alexa, you are speaking to a search engine. When you ask a question on Xbox, you are speaking to a search engine. After all, Telsyte estimates there will be over 311 million internet connected devices in Australian homes alone by 2021. Search engines in forms that we’ve not yet truly comprehended will continue to proliferate in our lives.

The New Search Engine Foresight Search Marketing Cartoon

So where does the creativity come in?

In the weaving together of the technological/algorithmic, linguistic and creative components of communication and marketing. 

With search you can:

  • Inspire new lines of business by understanding not just the areas of opportunity you meet now, but the areas of demand you may not currently be meeting. What products or differentiators are people searching for that you don’t have just yet?
  • Reduce the friction. Connect the dots for people by know what they’re looking for, how they’re looking for it and how fast they get to it!
  • Create content that answers the questions, inspiration, hopes, fears and concerns of potential customers at every step of their journey.

Now I’d like to make a statement around emotion and brand. The importance of search marketing, doesn’t in any way diminish the importance of brand marketing; of deeply inspiring advertising that shifts hearts and minds. They are two halves of a whole.

Search isn’t just about a particular channel, it is about answering questions of value, it’s about being genuine, being authentic. It’s about listening and using the customer’s language and stepping outside of the marketing speak that threatens to overtake our office cubicles with its overused and unintelligible acronyms.

The Death of Authentic Conversation Foresight Search Marketing Cartoon

Search is about meeting the available market demand for your brand or for the market category you’re in.

Branding is about demand creation and forming deep emotional bonds with people. As Simon Sinek is so often quoted because he put it so eloquently, “People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.” We can’t possibly ever say ‘search is the most important’. That’s like saying the body is more important than the mind, or visa versa. Each has a part to play. But neither should be called more beautiful, or more creative than the other.

Search allows us to unleash our imagination and as marketers looking to help people articulate value, we can use it to speak the customer’s language, to answer the questions that are important to them, and to help them make informed decisions. To have authentic, transparent conversations with them, to use this knowledge as a core strategic and creative input.

I hope that great traditional or even broader digital marketers who aren’t as familiar with search engine optimisation can bring the power of their minds to search, because they deserve to see its beauty, and to bring their creativity to the craft. Because words ignite powerful ideas, and search data can become the fuel for our creative fire. That’s not to mention the visual media content that search data must inevitably inspire to help continue to drive backlinks, site authority, keyword rankings and inevitably, traffic, engagement and conversions.

If a piece of content can be strategically crafted to truly speak to an audience and gain long term brand benefits vs short term, surely that’s something worth investing time in? Sometimes content may be structural, in the form of an app that helps a community self-generate content. As long as it’s indexable by a search engine, it could become a rich driver of traffic.

How many times do marketers simply brainstorm their content pillars without even speaking with their audience, and certainly without search data? How many blog posts go unread, videos unwatched, augmented reality apps abandoned and unsupported when the latest OS comes on the market and the project has exhausted its budget?

As marketers one of the most exciting parts of our job is when we are a part of helping a message connect with its recipient. That’s what we get to do EVERY DAY with search. We know our message will resonate because we are privileged to be able to see people looking for it, or linking to it, to categorise it, understand it and use it to build on an ever deeper understanding of the customer and how they evolve over time.

No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world. John Keating –

And let’s never forget that.

By the way, we did finally find our Digital Account Director. Meet Brett Allen, who has a long history spanning traditional and digital media moving from creative through to search.

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