As I’ve promised in the past, from time to time I will test your collective patience by running some sketches up the flagpole and seeing what you all have to say. So this post will be a bit longer than usual, but I’m trying to imagine a scenario where search’s business model infects television, and for whatever reason the Google Desktop application gave me an idea as to how. So here goes (remember, this is a *future* scenario)….
Compared to the unpredictable and untraceable value of a magazine ad or television spot, search looks pretty damn compelling. But at the end of the day, three lines of text sitting next to a set of results is a pretty meager way to declare your brand or inform a consumer about your new products or services. Clearly, there is room for both kinds of advertising – intent-based (search), and content-based (TV). But what if the two were to merge?
Before you dismiss the idea as mere speculation, let me lay out a scenario in which such a beast exists. First, imagine that a majority of households have a digital video recorder of one kind or another (such an event is predicted to occur by the year 2009, according to Forrestor). Further, imagine that this DVR has a “search history” of everything you’ve watched and are planning to watch (this is already done by most DVRs). Further still, imagine that this history is – with your tacit approval – blended with an edited profile of your online searching habits, forging a marketing precise of your likes and dislikes, your wants and needs (doing this is a matter of a marketing deal between DVR providers and search engines). Perhaps you use Google Desktop Search, or A9, or Ask, or Yahoo – it matters little, all of them create a search history already.
Now, let’s set this scenario in motion. Let’s say you are a young father to be (as I’ve been a few times). It’s 9 pm and your wife has settled, uncomfortably, onto the living room couch. Clearing her throat, she politely reminds you that you’ve been a bit distant lately, that you haven’t done a hell of a lot to help her around the house. You cringe. She continues: she’s eight months pregnant, for God’s sake, and when are you going to get around to reading that copy of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” that she’s left none to subtly in your briefcase six months ago?
Now, you’re in your den, avoiding dealing with the sheer terror of becoming a father by checking your email for the tenth time in so many minutes, but a pang of guilt finally reaches your venal heart. So you start searching the web, trying to get smart quick. You Google “pregnancy baby” and head to the first link, Babycenter.com, where you read up on the eighth month. You then find a link to an article that lists ten things you can do to be a better husband. The fourth suggestions reminds you to read the books your wife has purchased, so you head to Amazon and buy another copy of What to Expect…, as you left the one your wife gave you next to the Gideon bible on your last business trip.
“I’ll read it, I promise,” you tell your wife, and then add – “I’m on Babycenter right now, in fact.” Pleasantly startled, your wife springs off the sofa – well, lumbers, perhaps – and peers over your shoulder. In a flash of inspiration, you intuit that there might be something you could watch together on TV that relates to the whole parenting thing. “Let’s see if there’s anything on TV that might be good,” you say.
You click over to your Tivo homepage, which lets you manage your television service much as you manage your weblog reading – through a search-based interface. You search on “parent childbirth newborn” or somesuch and find that there are five shows in the next week that focus on the course of pregnancy, three of which are on the Learning Channel. You tell Tivo to record them all, noting that the first one will be available to download tonight, in half an hour, no less.
In the background of your computer, as you jump from site to site and page to page, several marketing-related actions are occurring. A cookie previously set by your local cable company notes that you’ve visited several sites that trigger “marketing potentials” – Amazon.com, Tivo.com, and Babycenter.com, all sites that indicate significant intent to purchase products or services. You’ve also alerted the system that you intend to download five new programs, and the system takes note of content tags associated with those programs, cross referencing them with your recent search history.
The cable cookie shares this information with a marketing application running in the background of your computer, perhaps as part of that Google Desktop Search program you recently downloaded. Alerted by the marketing potential that your recent surfing has created, GDS instantly uploads these potentials as database entries in Google’s central advertising marketplace – a marketplace that looks and works an awful lot like AdWords works right now.
Up on Google’s ad marketplace, millions of similar entries are aggregated and presented to hundreds of thousands of advertisers for sale in a computer-mediated real time auction. Most of those advertisers have preset their spending levels, demographic preferences, and most importantly, intent-based targeting profiles. In the time it takes for an average Google search to complete – less than a second – three advertisements have already been sold against each of the five programs you’ve selected.
Half an hour later, you and your wife turn on your television to catch the Learning Channel show. As it starts, a small box appears on the bottom of the screen, alerting you to several advertisements that have appeared in your programming feed. You know that should you decide to watch them, your local cable bill will be reduced by a buck or so (or, alternatively, you’ve selected the programming option that gives you free cable, but requires that you review ads at preset intervals). No matter, that’s not really the reason you might want to pause the show and check out the ads. Turns out, you rather like watching them, as they are often extremely relevant to your wants and needs, not to mention informative, linked as they are to robust websites and interactive features. So you pause the show, hit the ads button, and scan the commercials. Only, they’re not just commercials, they’re offers as well. The first is from Gerber for a free month’s supply of formula (pass, you and your wife have agreed that breast feeding is the way to go). Next up is a Pampers ad offering a free box of diapers (sure, why not, you accept that one, click the box which allows the system to send your details to the Pampers marketing machine). Then comes the killer ad: “Click here for $50 off a Peg Perego Stroller. Ships in 24 hours!” Huh, you think to yourself. That’s the one my wife said was the “Mercedes of strollers.” Maybe I can afford one after all.
“Sweetheart,” you ask her, “What do you think, should we go for it?” Her eyes light up (you had said no to this exact request twice – $300 for a f*cking stroller?!! – were your exact words) and you click to accept the offer. Your wife snuggles into your side, pleased that for once, her husband actually gets it. You return to the program, and…scene!
Is such a scenario possible? While the details will inevitably vary, I honestly think this scenario is not only plausible, it’s inevitable. And it is the infrastructure of paid search as we understand it today, coupled with tiny desktop apps like GDS – that will make it happen.