As someone who likes to think he is organized – or, as someone who at least likes to organize things – I’ve attempted to treat digital marketing terms similarly.
The same can be said for now-Googler and search industry pioneer Danny Sullivan when he began routinely using the term “search engine marketing” in 2001 to describe the overarching niche within the digital marketing industry that focuses on search engines.
As my thinking went (and as Sullivan admits he intended), search engine marketing, or SEM, would be (and once was) a useful way to summarize and classify both the paid and non-paid initiatives that go into digital marketing via search engines.
That would mean both the pay-per-click advertisements, or PPC ads, and the organic search initiatives commonly referred to as search engine optimization, or SEO, would fall under that SEM blanket term.
SEM would be the category of marketing through search engines. The paid (PPC) and non-paid (SEO) channels of SEM would both fall under it in terms of hierarchy.
And, even when you consider the literal terminology in coordination with this idea of SEO and PPC falling under that SEM blanket, it almost makes sense.
But, much like the English language, pop culture, and the Cleveland Browns, it simply can’t work the way it’s supposed to.
There will always be exceptions to the rule (like the aforementioned conundrums above).
So, confusing it may be. But the search industry shapes itself, and it has not agreed with Mr. Sullivan over the years, adopting the term SEM to fit strictly into the paid search sphere.
It surely appears it’s there to stay, too.
Difference Between SEM & PPC
PPC is SEM.
That is, pay-per-click advertising (PPC) is the same as search engine marketing (SEM), or at least a vital part of it.
SEO is none of those things.
What likely evolved over time due to the multiple potentially confusing digital marketing acronyms, as well as the need to define specific paid initiatives outside of Google paid search, brought two heavily used cost-driven marketing terms to mean the same thing (leading to even more potential confusion from newbies).
I’ve always tried to make sense of the literal meaning of things, too, especially acronyms.
But from there, it’s easy to get even more lost in the idea.
While the breakdown of the abbreviation PPC is spot on — regardless if it’s called PPC, CPC, paid search, search ads – we know it is referring to paid search marketing, typically through search engines like Google and Bing.
Other terms and tactics used in digital marketing initiatives – especially those tied to search marketing tactics (both paid and organic) – may not be so simple and clearly defined, though.
Difference Between SEO & PPC
We know SEO is search engine optimization.
But, to echo the sentiments of search pioneer Mike Grehan, that never did make much sense.
Marketers aren’t optimizing search engines; we’re optimizing content and websites for search engines (secondly, right after optimizing them for humans) so they can better understand, access, and relay our property to the masses.
Again, acronyms don’t always make sense. So, naturally, this is a bit illogical.
Just like other things in life that don’t always add up, there are some acronyms that will never make sense either.
Like Humvee, which doesn’t stand for any words that start with U or E in them. (It actually stands for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, and was spawned from the original acronym, HMMWV.)
We’ve also determined that PPC marketing is (at least now) the same as, or a very large part of, SEM.
- Both are paid initiatives.
- Both need budget.
- Both make search engines like Google and other advertising platforms a lot of money.
But, while Wikipedia defines SEM as “a form of Internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) primarily through paid advertising,” it’s not so quick to call them the same exact thing.
In fact, pay-per-click marketing has its own separate Wikipedia page than the topic of search engine marketing (despite there being plenty of discrepancies and confusion throughout the page).
The bottom line is this:
SEO is not a component of SEM.
And, while PPC is typically the largest and most demanding component of SEM, both PPC and SEM are paid initiatives that offer real-time data, ROI, and protected data that can only be accessed by advertisers of certain platforms.
Why It Matters
The most important reason for clarification around these important terms and abbreviations is consistency.
Too many novice marketers, or marketers who aren’t specialists in maximizing value through search, have adopted these industry definitions and crossed them, combined them, confused them, and used them in a way that only further diluted their true meaning.
And even well-seasoned marketers who simply didn’t agree with or possibly even completely understand the terms themselves help contribute to the turning tide as well.
Conferences have set up entire segments of their educational offering around the SEM naming convention when referring to strictly paid marketing efforts, but those efforts aren’t strictly done through search engines.
SEM, at least from this perspective, includes PPC ads on search engines but also on third-party platforms like Amazon and YouTube, as well as industry-focused platforms like Houzz, or Thumbtack, or Yelp. It also includes display ads and remarketing efforts.
And, as the opportunity to advertise on social media continues to grow, it tends to include paid advertising on those networks, too.
Keeping the definitions and their usage consistent is going to be the best way to keep the information organized in a way that makes sense for marketers.
It also helps us as marketers to convey our thoughts and ideas to clients and their stakeholders, our peers, or a friend who is curious about what exactly it is we do for a living.
Using the Marketing Right Terms for the Right People & Setting
When discussing digital marketing – specifically search marketing – and how it pertains to a brand or message, it’s important for marketers to use language that is digestible for clients and potential clients.
Needless to say, 8 out of 10 times, non-marketers already don’t know the difference between incredibly different key terms.
Like SEO and PPC (or SEM), when speaking to someone outside of the search marketing community, these terms need to be clearly defined at least once, and typically more than once, throughout the conversation.
We all have those new-business pitch stories where a client goes on throughout years of his or her life thinking SEO is responsible for paid search ads or that paid search ads were achieved through organic optimizations.
First, the terms must be understood on a level playing field. Hopefully, this post helps do that.
We now are in agreement that:
- SEM and PPC refer to paid initiatives through search and other advertising platforms on the internet.
- While SEO is the organic effort that goes into marketing through search engines.
Secondly, we must always consider who the audience is and the level of knowledge it has when it comes to digital marketing, particularly search marketing, while also ensuring we detail:
- What each term means.
- How it works.
- How it relates to the audience’s goals.
Lastly, and most importantly, we must never assume someone on the other end of our conversation knows what we are referring to when we use important industry terms like SEO, PPC, or SEM.
We must be concise and explain exactly what is we are talking about. Ensure the group partaking in the conversation is in agreement.
On a bad day, someone else in the room may disagree and tell us we are wrong.
On a good day, though, we’ll get a room full of people all on the same page who are able to move forward and correctly use consistent terminology for some of the most important practices in digital marketing today.
Before Deciding Where Your Content Team Reports, Pay Attention to This
When a brand creates a new content marketing or content strategy team, they often ask, “What function or department should the content team report to?”
My answer? “Yes!”
Now, I’m not trying to be a smart aleck. (Well, I am a little bit, do you even know me?) But seriously, my yes comes from years of helping implement content teams in dozens of businesses. My affirmative response indicates the most important thing isn’t to whom content reports; it’s that content teams report to the business.
When it reports into a function, such as brand, marketing, sales enablement, demand gen, PR/comms, or even (yes, really in one case) finance, the business acknowledges content marketing is a real thing with real responsibilities, power, and capabilities to affect business outcomes.
“What outcomes?” you might ask.
Well, that depends on where content marketing reports.
Now you have the real conundrum.
You can’t figure out where content marketing and content strategy should report without knowing the expected business outcomes, and you can’t know the business outcomes until you know where they’re reporting.
Content’s pervasiveness creates the challenge
Content as a strategic function in business affects almost everything. That pervasiveness means nearly any function in the business could “own” content as a strategy.
For example, we recently worked with a company about a year into its enterprise-wide digital transformation strategy. They have a content team, and we were to help them assemble a governance and operational approach for their website content.
When we determined the right operational processes, we got into trouble. A content team leader asked, “What if someone proposed a new AI chatbot as part of this digital transformation for the website? Is it a content project with a technology component or a technology project with a content component?”
The question isn’t semantics. Instead, the answer determines the process for development, the team owning implementation, and the measurement by which it’s deemed successful.
It’s not just a technology challenge, either. The company also wanted to create new brand content guidelines for the website. Is that a content team project informed by the brand team or a brand project in consultation with the content team?
Given content’s pervasiveness, you can argue it is part of any meaningful communications initiative the business takes on. But sales’ needs are different from marketing’s, and HR’s requirements are different from the demand-gen team’s. However, to achieve consistency in content and communication, it doesn’t make sense to let each function determine its content strategy.
To achieve the balance between an enterprise-wide content strategy and the unique needs of every function in the business, the leaders and practitioners must decide to whom content reports. Again, the agreement is important, not the where or what of the agreement.
3 key attributes to identify in the decision-making process
As you and the leadership ponder how to balance the enterprise content strategy and where it should sit, consider these three key attributes that play an essential role in success.
1. Develop a content operations backbone
I don’t care if you have two people and one blog and a website or a team of 50 who operate on 35 content platforms across multiple channels. A content operations infrastructure creates consistent success across your digital content experiences. Content operations is an enterprise-recognized set of integrated and shared systems (meaning technologies), standards, guidelines, playbooks, and processes to ensure reliable, consistent, scalable, and measurable content across the business.
Content operations acts as the backbone – the foundation – to ensure the content is created, managed, activated, and measured the same way across whatever audience and whichever channel the brand presents to.
2. Connect with the audience across platforms
You can no longer expect to create one optimal experience that makes up for a bunch of sub-optimal ones.No matter your size, it’s not good enough to have your blog subscribers separate from your marketing automation database and all that separated from your CRM system. This goes for all of your audiences – from new employees to external parties such as analysts, journalists, partners, vendors, etc.
In this approach, the goal is to engage, build, and develop relationships with audiences. Thus, connecting audience behavior with insights on how to communicate better is not a siloed functional need; it is an enterprise need.
3. Build an accountability framework
This attribute in one word? Standards (and a team to keep them.) In a truly fascinating way, one of the earliest activities in building a content strategy makes the biggest impact on larger businesses: Come to terms with what words around content strategy and marketing mean. What is a campaign? What is the difference between a campaign and an initiative? What is an e-book? What is an article vs. a blog post? How long should a white paper take to write? Most businesses assume these things or create meanings based on contextual needs.
At a recent client, one group expected the content team to produce white papers within a week of the request. Another group expected them to be delivered in six weeks at double the length that the other group thought.
An accountability framework – and its ongoing evolution – presents clear ownership and coordination of content standards (roles, responsibilities, processes, types) across the enterprise. This model should not detail the definitions and standards but identify how they will enforce them.
Start your content decisions by deciding together
Where should you begin?
Well, just like in the beginning, my answer is yes. Independent of where you start, the critical point happens in the deciding of the elements. To be clear, these are institutional decisions, not simply “what you think.” In other words, it doesn’t matter what you believe the definitions, roles, or processes should be if the other parts of the organization don’t know, believe, or care.
A great first step is to create that accountability framework and make people care about its existence. At first, it might create a language of content that everybody in your business understands. When someone says, “I’d like to do a campaign,” or, “I think we should write a white paper,” everyone understands what that means and what it takes to do it. Then, the benefits of an accountability framework will start to become clear.
It makes the case for a team assigned to lead this consistency easier. And that enables the team to connect those experiences and audiences in a way that makes sense for everyone.
In the end, you have found determining the where, how, and what of a content strategy implementation isn’t the most important. The act of deciding is.
It’s a strange combination. In isolation, the reason for deciding seems straightforward. So why wouldn’t anybody want a clear definition of what a campaign is or a single source of the truth when it comes to the tone of your content?
But stacked together, those decisions feel like they are bigger than the content team and really should involve the entire enterprise. (Spoiler alert: They do.)
If you want any desired consequence, you had better decide on all the things that would help create it.
It’s your story. Tell it well.
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