Acronym Media's CMO Mike Grehan On Why Marketers Should Think Like Publishers
Search marketing expert explains how brands can better understand consumer intent to create better content.
Acronym Media CMO Mike Grehan has a long history in the broadcast and publishing industries, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he says brands should think like publishers when it comes to telling their stories and connecting with consumers.
In a recent interview, he says marketers must also have a better understanding of consumer intent. When brands recognize the intent behind keywords and phrases in search queries, they can then harness that intent to develop content that meets those needs and better connects with said customers.
Grehan also notes brands should use end user data to help determine which content suits which context. In turn, better content and end user experiences mean better search rankings and more meaningful consumer engagement.
He also notes the importance of brands getting closer to their customers as actual people and developing more personal relationships with them.
The full interview follows.
Can you give us some quick background on Acronym Media?
Acronym was founded by Anton Konikoff, a young Russian student studying business and marketing in the United States back in 1995. He had some very advanced ideas on how keywords actually represented a kind of proxy for a customer. He wrote a thesis which was quite remarkable in that, he was already thinking at that early stage about the “intent” behind keywords and phrases used in search queries.
He set up his business in the most iconic office block in the world, the Empire State Building. And over the past 16 years Acronym has grown into one of the longest established and most recognized brands in the search industry. The company provides expert enterprise search marketing solutions to global and national clients including SAP, Four Seasons Hotels, Humana, and Accenture, to name a few.
And how about you? What’s your background?
I spent 10 years working in radio and television in the UK in a previous life. And then I moved into marketing and advertising. First on the agency side, then on the client side. Of course, this was pre-World Wide Web.
I met a guy in 1995 who was working at the same agency as me who had taught himself HTML and could create web pages. I thought he was some kind of computer programming genius until I learned, at a later stage, that my cat could do HTML 1.0. We split from the agency and formed our own “Internet Marketing Consultancy” which was fairly advanced, in the sense that, there were about 85 web sites in total on the web and nobody actually needed a marketing consultancy… So we designed and built (very ugly) websites.
After that partnership ended in tears, I started my own consultancy, but by this time I was already tinkering with web pages and seeing how they ranked at early search engines such as Lycos, Webcrawler, Inktomi, and Infoseek. But my main target was Alta Vista, which was the big search engine before Google came along.
I learned how to manipulate rankings at Alta Vista in a few different ways. I had no idea that I was pummeling them with spam on a daily basis. I just thought I was doing a good job getting really good results for my clients. I believe there was a wanted poster for me hanging in the lobby at Alta Vista HQ for a while.
I wrote an eBook on SEO in 1999 but it didn’t get much attention. But in 2001 I updated to a much more comprehensive edition which really explained the inner workings of search engines. And that went like wildfire all over the web.
I’ve been a primary speaker at most of the search/digital marketing conferences. And also a contributor to many digital marketing publications. But my longest affinity has been with SearchEngineWatch.com, ClickZ.com and SES Conference & Expo. In fact, I was publisher of both titles and producer of the conference for five years prior to rejoining Acronym.
I’m also current Chairman of SEMPO.
Acronym’s website talks about intent-based marketing solutions. What does that mean?
As I mentioned earlier, Acronym was a pioneer in keyword research and trying to determine what the real “meaning” was behind specific keywords and phrases. By understanding the “information need” behind a keyword or phrase we’re better able, as marketers, to develop content that meets that need specifically.
I was very fortunate to be the first person in the SEO field to interview a scientist by the name of Andrei Broder who, at the time, believe it or not, was Chief Scientist at Alta Vista. He wrote the seminal paper “A Taxonomy of Web Search” which looks at three distinctive types of search behavior: Informational; Navigational; Transactional.
Using this taxonomy as a basis to determine intent behind specific queries allows us to prioritize keyword management for our clients. Many of whom have millions of keywords and phrases. We’re also better able to advise on the type of content to satisfy the end user need.
Intent can determine whether a video may be a better user experience following a query than web page. Or it could be an online tool or service. Google is already using intent to free searchers from the constraints of being tied to specific keywords when they understand more about the concept of the information need and can serve a greater variety of relevant content.
What’s your advice for brands looking to find and better serve customers?
As far as search goes, a better understanding of intent is essential. But in the broader sense, our focus as marketers is on acquiring, retaining, and growing customers. Going forward, with “the connected” consumer, the ability to get closer to a one-to-one relationship is going to be the most important thing.
We have to learn to stop talking about customers as being anonymous beings inside a demographic group. We need to stop talking about customers as “data” inside a customer relationship management system.
I do believe that in the future we’ll move away from our current attention economy (shouting as loud as we can to get customer’s attention to buy from us). And we’ll move to an intention economy where the customer has more of a “vendor relationship management” (VRM) system. That’s why understanding your customer as a person and moving more toward those personal relationships will become all the more important.
What are some challenges brands have reaching consumers on different devices?
I think there’s a fundamental challenge to be overcome by so many people in the industry. And that’s to understand that, although we use the terms interchangeably, the Internet and the World Wide Web are two different things.
A great deal of what we do in terms of digital marketing is locked into the fabric of the World Wide Web. Analytics are tied to log files and tags on web pages. We rely so much on cookies and web browser data and, generally, remain focused on the protocol of the World Wide Web.
Yet, it’s possible to spend an entire day on the Internet and go nowhere near the World Wide Web. The idea of the Internet of everything is rapidly changing the way we do business. There’ll be a huge transformation when, not only are we interacting with real human beings on various devices at various times of the day, but many machines will be interacting with each other at the same time too.
Nope, it’s not the end of the World Wide Web by far. And taking a step further back, it’s not the end of conventional marketing practices in press, radio and television. But it is the beginning of bringing all of this together as marketers and not separating or putting people into silos as we’ve done before.
In a conversation I had with Avinash Kaushik, Digital marketing Evangelist with Google, he gave a pretty good example of this. The short story goes something like this: “Imagine you’re targeting a demographic group that includes 80-year-old females, and you’re trying to sell them wheelchairs. How do you know they want one? Now imagine if you knew something about their intent, like for instance, if you knew they had been online looking at the Apple store, you’d be selling them an iPad, not a wheelchair. That’s the difference: understanding intent!”
Currently we use the term “omni-channel” to describe current marketing trends. It’s a suitable mindset to have to begin with. That said, we’re the senders of marketing communication messages and consumers/customers are the receivers. We need to be more in tune with the receiver than the channel, regardless.
What’s your best advice for brands looking to tell their stories via content marketing?
I’m not big on the term “content marketing” as it suggests that content is a strategy. But we’re all publishers now. Even if it’s just me and my shitty little Twitter account, I’m publishing.
If you’re a publisher, content is the product. It’s not a strategy.
Put it this way, without content you have an empty medium. What use is that to anyone?
As I mentioned earlier, I come from a broadcast background. When I worked in radio, for instance, all I thought about every day was content. What am I going to play next, what am I going to say next, who am I going to talk to next, what ad will I play next… And so it goes.
Content, content, content. It wasn’t a strategy, it was the product.
So I would remind all marketers to think like publishers. Understand your audience and create content that truly connects with them. Don’t use your channels of communication to churn out sales messages and content that amounts to nothing more than a pitch. Create meaningful content to provide a meaningful experience.
During my time as a publisher I looked at how content can be developed and repurposed to get to the publication’s entire universe. If editorial had a great story that was getting a lot of traffic and social media buzz, maybe we can expand that from a pure editorial piece. Maybe we can bring in some subject matter experts and work it up into a thought leadership piece like a white paper. And just maybe that white paper could be presented to the audience as a webinar. And maybe that webinar would make a good panel session at a conference. And maybe that conference session would look good on video…
I think you get the picture.
Why is it so important for brands to understand end user data?
I think it’s more important for brands to know how Google (and other search engines) use end user data and the huge value it has for them. Not that they shouldn’t be monitoring this so closely on their own platforms. Whether that be a website an app or social media channels.
But with search, intent (which I’ve covered quite a lot here) and end user data provide the strongest signals to which content suits which context and the best experience. This is now firmly folded into ranking mechanisms. Of course, it’s included in a combination of many signals. But understanding which content, tied to what intent, is consumed the most by the end user gives a very clear signal to user preferences.
Whereas links and link anchor text used to be the workhorse of ranking mechanisms at search engines, they relied wholly on people with websites who could pass a link and provide suitable, relevant anchor text. But what about the millions and millions of end users without a website? How are they supposed to provide a signal as to what they actually do prefer in SERPs (search engine results pages)?
The way they do it is with their clicks and engagement. Google, for instance, can tell a whole lot about which content the end user prefers by looking at click curves and length of stay. Google is able to “follow” the user around the web now with data from the toolbar which so many people have embedded in their web browser, or, of course, directly from their own Chrome browser data. And this is not cheap digital stalking. This is taking masses of implicit data derived from previous behavioral analysis and using it intelligently to predict future behavior.
The better the content and end user experience, the better rewarded you’ll be by Google. And in turn, by your potential next customer with the meaningful engagement and rich user experience you provide.