Noah Elkin is the director of industry relations at iCrossing, which was recently named Best Search Agency of 2005 by industry trade publication OMMA. iCrossing, started more than nine years ago in Scottsdale, Ariz., is jumping into new arenas, such as the mobile search market, and expanding client services to include content creation and website design.
Elkin is responsible for iCrossing’s public messaging and interfacing with high-profile analyst firms, along with sitting on industry committees, such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Direct Marketing Association and the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, which puts him in a unique position to observe the online advertising industry from a variety of angles. Elkin, who previously worked as a senior analyst at research firm eMarketer for five years, has a Ph.D. from Rutgers University and received a B.A. with honors from Columbia University. He recently spoke withRevenue senior editor Maria Sample about winning industry accolades, providing services for the little guys and where search marketing is headed.
Maria Sample: Your company calls search marketing “reverse direct marketing.” How would you describe it?
Noah Elkin: It’s something of a philosophical shift in how customers and businesses interact. Customers are now actively searching for brands and products and services, for information. It’s a seismic shift from a typical push-advertising model where you get an email message or a TV spot or a regular print advertisement. It reflects the degree to which the customer is in control. With reverse direct marketing, a customer has already given an indication of what he or she is interested in. Search, as we like to say, is like a giant focus group.
MS: What’s the main difference between iCrossing now versus 1998?
NE: Our recent restructuring of the organization into three main service lines – marketing services, marketing technologies and marketing properties – is a major shift. Another difference is the building of expertise in these separate business units. And the addition of certain services like creative is one of the biggest changes, not only for us, but also for our space as well.
MS: What has remained the same at iCrossing since 1998?
NE: Certainly the talent of our people has been the constant, and the expertise across the board has been a constant since the start, and it’s something we’re very proud of. It will drive us forward as we expand. And as we continue to receive accolades from the industry, it will enable us to attract the top talent that we’ve become known for.
MS: What has changed since iCrossing won the OMMA award?
NE: We’ve been building really powerful partnerships with the world’s leading brands for more than seven years now, and along the way, really changing the ad agency landscape by helping clients connect with their customers anytime, anywhere, however they want, wherever they want, whenever they want. We feel the OMMA award is a great honor. We’re really proud to have worked so diligently to build these kinds of partnerships that we have with Fortune 500 companies. That’s a tremendous validation of the work that we’ve done, and it sends a message about the potential that search and commercial brand marketing have for helping businesses interact at a much higher level than ever with their customers.
MS: How is iCrossing different from its competitors?
NE: As our founder Jeff Herzog likes to say, iCrossing has been an innovator in search advertising since before Google was Google. What we have that’s unique is our full-service approach. We’re not just a search engine optimization vendor; we’re a fullservice marketing connection. I think that’s a major differentiator between iCrossing and other companies. We’ve really been growing the company with the evolution of search as a medium. I think it’s that kind of vision that puts us on the leading edge, helping to drive the future of advertising – with our in-house expertise on the services side and also on the technology side. We’re the largest independent agency out there, and we back up our tremendous talent with our market research, our strategic alliances, planning and client services with our proprietary technology. That’s a one-two punch that most other places can’t really boast of.
What makes us different is that we have this expertise in market research that provides clients with the deep-dive analytics about their company and industry. We give them the knowledge and tools to help succeed by planning how to accomplish short-term goals and long-term opportunities, using a full array of tools and services organized around search.
Another exciting differentiator for us is the creative service we offer. It’s one side of the business that we’ve really been building in the past year, and it’s really going to grow quite a lot in 2006. It’s everything from copy to actual website design, all organized around improving and maximizing both user experience and optimization of search. We see ourselves as a one-stop shop when it comes to advertising online as well as through emerging technologies, mobile included. We are launching a major mobile innovation called mCrossing, expanding our expertise from natural search optimization on the Web to global devices.
MS: What’s the most important service your company offers?
NE: The most important service is the fact that we offer all of the services, but our strength is expertise in natural search optimization. It’s been able to help prepare us to expand to mobile devices. Bear in mind that natural search results are clicked on 80 to 85 percent of the time, far more than paid search. It’s very important to have that grounding in natural search; it’s the bedrock of what we do. It’s important to have strong expertise, and we’ve been able to complement that with strengths across the board as well as market research and our agency services.
MS: What kind of search are you going to be capitalizing on in the next year?
NE: Mobile search is a very exciting opportunity in the year ahead. Global is one initiative, and certainly local search and classified search – yellow pages. We’ll have a product geared toward the small- and medium-sized business market organized for local search that will be going out toward the end of the quarter.
MS: I’ve heard a little criticism that some of the smaller businesses can’t afford the products you offer.
NE: That’s why we built this technology in-house – that’s a real differentiator as well, that we build all our technology platforms inhouse. Technology is the largest department in our Scottsdale office. Expanding on that, we looked at the small- to midsized business market as well and discovered people that don’t necessarily have either the need or the budget, but they probably want some of the benefits of visibility on the Web. If you’re a plumber in Illinois, you don’t really care if someone in New York finds you on a search for a plumber, because chances are that person is not going to use your services. What we’ve done is to build a selfservice platform that integrates our optimization and tracking software in a way that will make it more accessible for the smalland medium-sized business. Our approach is, whether you’re local, national or international, we help your brand make the connection and quantify the results. What we do best is help companies reach their consumer at their point of interest.
MS: How are online retailers missing the boat in search?
NE: There’s a growing need of the importance of integrating search engine optimization into the workflow process and ensuring that this takes place before the product is launched and before the copy for it is written. Companies and clients need to understand that products must be optimized well before they’re launched, and make sure that search is a priority and not an afterthought. You’re going to get the majority of traffic from natural search, so we strongly encourage clients to plan for that well in advance.
Another way companies are missing the boat is not implementing recommendations in a timely fashion. Clients who receive recommendations from the search agency and then sit on them really run the risk of not getting the online visibility for their products that they would otherwise get from implementing optimization recommendations. This can be particularly crucial at specific times of the year, such as prior to the holiday shopping season, which is obviously the most important time of the year for online retailers.
MS: Give me an example of a client that implemented recommendations in a timely fashion.
NE: One of our best examples is Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. They’ve been a client with us for a very long time. It’s really a great success story of crowding out the competition, like critical search engine traffic drivers such as Orbitz, to really control the user experience and the message that consumers are getting. That’s one that we’re extremely proud of because, as a brand, you want to make sure you control the experience and not the search engine. So it’s been a great partnership for both Fairmont and iCrossing.
At the beginning of our engagement with Fairmont, in terms of keyword visibility, we saw the number of keywords appearing on the first three pages of search results increase to 2,579; a total jump of 1,156 percent, from a baseline of 223 keywords. In terms of baseline search traffic, which was established at 29 percent, within a month of implementing optimized coding elements, the search traffic increased by 41 percent and booking reservations increased by 150 percent over the baseline.
MS: Do you have any studies planned for 2006 that you’re particularly excited about?
NE: We have a relationship with Harris Interactive – they do studies for us and we have three or four planned for 2006. But we’re really excited about a couple of themes that we’re going to work on from both a horizontal basis as well as some of the vertical industries that we’re targeting. One is branding search – why major companies are becoming more comfortable with this concept and how we can augment individual marketing and help branding efforts.
In 2005, there was a lot of talk about paid search, and quite a bit of money spent on it, but we really see natural search as the biggest driver of traffic to websites. We want to focus on and evangelize why and how you can provide the best return on marketing spend and how to budget and manage for a successful marketing campaign.
Another area is about marketers themselves, about what kind of website, from a design and architecture perspective, is going to really reinforce the brand. One of our goals is to optimize the creative and maximize the value of the client’s investment in natural search results for years to come. We do this by optimizing Web pages, building specialized microsites and landing pages designed to drive specific consumer actions, and deploying paid media and mobile marketing campaigns. We partner with clients to break down the barriers between them and their customers.
MS: Is that one of the reasons you joined the Mobile Marketing Association?
NE: In part, yes. For us, that was an industry-leading move, and we’re certainly the first search marketing agency to do that. We want to make sure we’re positioned to take full advantage of opportunities in the mobile space and, in some ways, to branch out our contacts and gain potential opportunities to companies that might not think to come to us.
MS: What do you want most for your company in the future?
NE: Continued growth, continued profitability and continued engagement with the world’s leading brands. A deepening of relationships with both interesting and new clients. As online advertising continues to grow, the lion’s share of those dollars is moving to search. And to really be able to apply our expertise on the agency and technology side, to really be the one-stop shop when it comes to interactive marketing. We want to be top of mind when companies are looking to embrace interactive and emerging technologies.
MARIA SAMPLE is a senior editor at Revenue. In the past 15 years, she has worked for Ziff-Davis, CNET, Charles Schwab and Restoration Hardware. This is her first article for Revenue.