I had the extreme pleasure of presenting to some of the biggest brands around at the 2009 Brandworks University . This year represented 19 years that Lindsay, Stone & Briggs  has put on this annual branding conference. Brandworks is very unique in many ways as conferences go: attendance is mostly done by invitation, but attendees still pay a fee to attend; rather than elective presentations running simultaneously, there’s one block and presentations flow back-to-back and are formulated to relate to and support each other as well as the underlying theme; rather than a typical podium setup, presentations are done “in-the-round;” and it isn’t hard to find attendees who are able to claim 5, 10 or more years of attendance. Needless to say, if you ever get the opportunity to attend or are invited to speak, I highly recommend it.
This year’s talk was around the core theme of the “conversation economy” and how marketing, branding, and business in general is being shaped by and around conversations. Not surprising, there was a fair amount of talk around social media . Of course, my portion  was to focus on natural search as part of this conversation, which thanks to blended search, crosses over and intersects all marketing channels. While my view on natural search hasn’t changed much over the years, preparing my presentation for the conference helped me frame it up with the exact message phrasing that I’ve been looking for – “just in time conversation.”
Just In Time Conversation
This description is excellent for natural search, and those who have been doing SEO for any amount of time have probably recognized this viewpoint. Natural search provides the opportunity to reach out and connect with a website’s target audience at the ideal time…when they are seeking what the site has to offer.
Of course you would think that presenting to some of the whose-who of brands would make this messaging old news. However, even today, this still couldn’t be further from the truth. A lot of brands have made great strides online, but there is still a lot of ground on the natural search marketing front to be gained.
In prepping for the conference, I had a chance to preview a list of some of the represented brands and took that as an opportunity to see how well they were doing already regarding SEO. To protect the guilty, I won’t call out any of these brands here. Many of the fundamentals that you’d expect these brands to have already addressed, many of which would be evident even through a 60-Second Website Audit , actually hadn’t been addressed: canonicalization, duplicate title tags, keyword cannibalization, generic anchor text, etc. Beyond some of the more technical issues, many of these sites could benefit greatly just through thin slicing natural search optimization  tactics.
I can only hope that the presentation helped to start more of these big brands down the natural search marketing path. I certainly did what I could in the 45 minutes I was given to illustrate the point.
Natural Search Users, Please Stand Up
Early in the presentation, I invited the attendees to participate in a little poll by having them stand up based on their own personal interaction with various marketing vehicles. Specifically, I asked them to stand up if:
Within the last week, you…
- Used a phonebook?
- Acted on a billboard ad?
- Acted on a magazine ad?
- Acted on a radio ad?
- Acted on a TV ad?
- Used a search engine?
- Clicked on a paid search result?
- Clicked on a natural search result?
As you might imagine (and can see below), out of 300 plus attendees, the numbers grew gradually, from 2-3 for phonebook usage (which I was actually amazed that the number was that high), up to nearly everyone in the audience when I reached the “Used a search engine?” part of the poll. Presenting in-the-round also meant that it was very easy for all of the attendees to see how much search engine usage has become a part of their and everyone’s everyday life. Not surprising, those who clicked on a natural search result compared to a paid search result was far greater.
This of course was the first step…now to get marketers to question why they continue to put a disproportionate amount of their online spend toward paid search versus natural search, even when their own usage of search engines contradicts that logic. But just like natural search takes time, it takes time to turn this kind of thinking right side up.
For many companies, natural search marketing may itself be one of the most important just in time conversations they have this year, after all, it’s now July and the 2009 holiday season is just around the corner.