How to explain search engine marketing to anyone in three minutes

Recently Catherine Juon, the co-founder of Pure Visibility, asked me to create the “Venture Capitalist” description of search engine marketing that she could describe in three minutes. She thought that this would be a challenge, but honestly I think it’s a snap, because at the end of the day, Search Engine Marketing has much more in common with traditional marketing than many people initially believe. We describe SEM very simply. It entails:

  • Defining your market of potential customers
  • Making your message visible to that market
  • Using your website to create visitors of value.

Here’s how it works…

Defining your market of potential customers. Who wants to buy what you have to sell, how do they talk about it, and what do they read that relates to it? Find the keywords that they use to talk about a product, and you have the kernel of an organic or paid search campaign. Find the related topics, and you have the core of a link building strategy. Most traditional SEM companies don’t do a very good job of this, largely because research on the words themselves is rarely sufficient. A good SEM company will also figure out which words are most competitive, and which terms best describe the products their client is selling in a favorable light. This is critical, because without identifying the proper market, a company can waste valuable time and money chasing people who aren’t really a match for their product.

Making your message visible to that market. Once an online market is defined, your company–generally in the form of a website–has to be found. Identifying the best ways to make a company’s online assets visible, either through paid search, social media campaigns, organic search methods, or blogging is a key part of search engine marketing, and when most Search Engine Marketing firms sell their services, they are talking about this activity almost exclusively.

The challenge is to place this effort in the proper context of the right market. Also, any list of interested visitors does a company no good if they don’t take an action that matches their marketing goals.

This is why a key activity in Search Engine Marketing is to Create Visitors of Value. A visitor of value is a visitor who, while in some defined stage of a sales cycle, executes an action indicating that they are ready to move to the next step of the sales process. For example, a visitor still gathering information might download white papers. A visitor who is interested in buying a product would, of course, buy one, generally through some e-commerce interface. This step is any company’s primary growth opportunity, and understanding visitors and their expectations is the key part of the strategy.

How does a search engine marketing company make this work? Well, there are two key issues: first, the company must have a good profile of the prospective visitor and their needs at each stage of the sales cycle. Second, the SEM company must strategize with their client to determine how exactly their online assets will be used at the various stages of the sales cycle. A website that tries to sell visitors who are not ready to buy will fail; in the same way, a website that is oriented towards an early stage in the sales cycle when most visitors are ready to take more decisive action will frustrate and turn many visitors off.

That’s the three-minute spiel. If you have any time left, you might note that sometimes the technical aspects of Search Engine Marketing can swamp its simple promise, which is a return of the company-customer relationship to the days when people bought their essentials at the corner grocery from a shopkeeper who had known them for years. At the end of the day, the best search engine marketing strategies will work in the same way, with the same simplicity, clarity, focus, and intimacy.