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Sempo’s chairman sees the industry becoming broader than just ‘the pure SEO and paid search channels’ of the past

Mike Grehan, chief marketing officer and managing director at Acronym Media, and chairman of Sempo – the global trade association for search marketers – has been on the marketing scene for over three decades.

Talking to The Drum on what is next for search and his upcoming appointment as a judge for the Search Awards USA, he is certain that the search industry may become broader than just focusing on SEO and the paid search channels that agencies have done in the past.

The Drum: What innovated the industry this year?

Mike Grehan: “We’re going through quite a search engine advertising (SEA) change with advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence. So, the surprise success of Echo (Alexa) for Amazon was interesting and a little out of the blue.

“Everyone is talking about voice activated search, so that’s pretty big. However, it’s worth pointing out that, each time we talk into our mobile device, it’s not all about doing a search at Google. The majority of the time we’re actually looking for service from our digital assistants.

“It’s a case of search and service. Somebody told me a story that they saw someone pick up their iPhone and start talking into it, and there was an actual human being on the other end. Pretty farfetched I thought.”

TD: Voice search is very topical right now and how it will impact traditional search. But which voice-enabled devices do you think will become dominant?

MG: “Regardless of voice or text, as human beings our information needs remain the same. For sure, your digital assistant will be able to do voice activated searches for you. But, you know, there are certain things you search for that you may not want to say out loud in public.

“There are also times when, for instance, you’re busy driving and you get a search result that is so long you can’t remember it. You can’t drive and read from a monitor. I doubt if we’ll see any one digital assistant become dominant. They will all just get smarter and smarter. And you’ll choose the one with the nicest… mobile phone plan!”

TD: What do you think are the key trends for search?

MG: “I can see the industry becoming broader than just the pure SEO and paid search channels that search agencies have been focused on in the past. Search and discovery channels along with remarketing lists (RLSA) and paid display and social ads are all connected. With content marketing and UX and analytics as a requirement too, service offerings are much more comprehensive.”

“I think understanding user intent has become very important in search. For a long time, the focus has been to target potential customers at the transactional stage. Whereas, connecting relevant and useful content with potential customers at earlier stages on the path to purchase creates stronger brand affinity.

“It’s often referred to as the “assist” stage of the journey. My own mantra for a long time has been: “Stop selling. Start helping.” So, there’s an important shift from just trying to create content that will rank at Google or Bing, to creating content that is relevant and useful in the moment to the end user.

TD: Where do you see the industry going in the coming year?

MG: “The next 12 months will probably see much more automation and AI related digital marketing products. Much more intent based approaches and exchange traded media. The internet of things (IoT) will play a huge role in business transformation and the way companies run their businesses, not just their marketing. Supply, demand and distribution will be tackled in a much more sophisticated and rapid manner too.”

TD: What would you say is the next big/innovative thing coming from Sempo?

MG: “Last year we started our SempoCities initiative which was an enormous success bringing local groups together. Not just in the US but internationally. These groups are a mixture of existing members and non-members in each location. The membership has always had opportunities to get together at industry events, but this gets it down to a very grass roots level. Even more cities have elected leaders to arrange events this year in places as far apart as Beijing, China and Cardiff, Wales.

“Plus, we have a major focus on training and education. In November, this year in Miami we’ll be working with Google, Bing and a number of major industry vendors to provide a full day of certified training followed by a day of celebrating our own industry awards for Sempo members.”

TD: What technology/innovation do you see impacting search the most right now?

MG: “It’s likely we’ll move away from having just a ‘search engine’ and go more towards having an ‘information provider’ to help us along. Search historically has been about content on the world wide web. Google and Bing are web search engines. Yet, more time on mobile devices is spent interacting with apps than using a browser.

“So, for instance, if I ask Siri to book a table at a favorite restaurant of mine, I want that to happen directly through my Open Table app directly so I get my points. I want my travel booked directly through American Airlines, and much more ‘service’ than always ‘search’ usually. So, digital assistants will give me information and provide service from multi-modal sources, not just a web search engine.

“Alexa, Cortana, Siri, Google Home, (even Samsung is introducing a digital assistant called Bixby) they all provide search and service in various forms, not just world wide web search engine results. Information providers, as such.”

TD: It is the first year for the Search Awards US, how important do you think these awards are for the industry?

MG: “Search marketing is a very established sector within the digital marketing industry in the US. But it’s still a hard one to master when you’re looking to get the correct integration between organic (SEO) and paid (PPC). And, of course, it must complement the overall digital marketing mix (in fact, be the very foundation in many cases).

“So, recognition of success on behalf of clients by a peer group of judges in a major publication such as The Drum is very much verification of expertise and execution. And that’s important to both the agency and the client.”

TD: What do you want to see from the entries this year?

MG: “More about customer success and integrated marketing than just smart use of search technology. Perhaps a little less attention on metrics and a little more on business outcomes. Not that measurement and ROI aren’t important, they are.

“But given what I said about early stage content, it would be good to see some creative approaches to content gap analysis and content mapping. More creative approaches to search marketing than just ‘buy now’ landing pages at the checkout stage.”

Grehan is a judge for The Drum Search Awards US, a new event to the American search market in 2017, which will recognize and award the most innovative, creative and effective search campaigns and strategies across both PPC and SEO.

The entry deadline is Thursday 13 July, so enter now to be recognized and rewarded for your contribution to the US search industry this year.

Sponsors include: YEXT, Sempo and Acronym

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