In 2002, AT&T made a major mistake. As part of the launch of its mobile initiative m-life, the company purchased television advertising during the Super Bowl coverage. Nothing wrong with that – along with the Oscars, it attracts one of the biggest audiences in American television and is seen as a creative showcase for the best in American advertising.

But what AT&T missed was how its advertising affected later search behaviour.

After the Super Bowl, many people went online and searched for m-life. But AT&T was nowhere to be seen in the search engine results. No-one had thought to optimise for the keyword before the big event.

Now the Super Bowl may have satisfied the company’s advertising objectives but its lack of presence in follow-up searches did the company damage in two ways. First, it didn’t cash in on the search interest its ad had generated. Second, it lost those search customers, probably to competitors.

Advertising can trigger internet searches

That sort of mistake probably wouldn’t happen today but the lesson it holds is that advertising can trigger and influence internet searches.

And if advertising can trigger search behaviour, then it is only a small leap to think that advertising can influence the words people use when they search, or – to use SEO speak - the keywords people type into the search boxes.

This could be important and the advertising industry is only starting to wake up to the potential. Here’s how the approach might work:

  • If an ad can suggest keywords to a particular target audience, then content for those keywords can be optimised, published on a website, and indexed by Google BEFORE the advertising campaign is launched. The idea being that once people start using the keywords then the advertiser’s web pages come top.
  • Once the campaign is launched, then advertisers not only have the branding or direct response benefits of the ads themselves but they get a ‘second bite’ through the search traffic stimulated by the chosen keywords.
  • If one of the terms is generic in nature or has broader appeal, then the phrase can be ‘owned’ by the advertiser.

At Wordtracker, we call this approach ‘keyword creativity’. The search terms (or keywords) that result from exposure to advertising should lead to the advertiser’s website. But that on its own is little more than a party trick. The important thing to ask is of course, what does this do to the bottom line?

  • If the keywords lead to the advertiser’s website, is the potential customer more trusting of the brand and more likely to buy?

  • Do the keywords remain in people’s minds and affect later search behaviour?
  • Do the keywords themselves attract additional prospects over and above those that would be attracted by the advertising?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then they will have a positive affect on the overall ROI of the campaign.

Keyword research is market research

I’m a bit of a traditionalist in my thinking on advertising and I believe that detailed research is essential for effective advertising. As David Ogilvy said, “I am helpless without research material”.

It’s an approached backed up by Pat Fallon and Fred Senn, in their excellent book, ‘Juicing the Orange’. They write:

“Communication in every medium old and new can be tremendously effective if the work is back up by insightful research, rigorous strategy, and the right execution.”

So if advertising agencies in pitching for new business, gather results from desk research, syndicated research, focus groups and other forms of primary research, why shouldn’t they add keyword research to the mix? Keywords, stripped of any SEO jargon are just the words people use when they search and therefore tell us more about the people we’re targeting.

These ‘keyword insights’, as marketing consultant Neil Davidson calls them, have been recognised by what might be called the creative wing of the SEO industry. Shari Thurow, writing in ClickZ,says:

“Whenever I create a persona, I want to know the types of search behavior that persona typically uses… I highly encourage all information architects to gain a greater understanding of the entire SEO process and add search behaviors to persona descriptions.”

The excellent Bryan Eisenberg, also writing in ClickZ , explains that:

“Keywords often broadcast online shopper intent”.

Chris Copeland of says:

“Search is all about matching consumer intent with advertisers’ content. It is seeing the field before we act. Search behavior, whether it is someone buying an air conditioner when temperatures hit a certain point or buzz around a new TV show debuting, can and will change the way all other media is planned and bought.”

Improving a pitch for new business

I think there is interesting ground to be explored in the notion of keyword creativity. If I was briefing an advertising agency today, I’d include a section in the brief along the lines of:

  • Here are my top 10 keywords for this product line
  • How could your agency using your years of advertising expertise, influence search behaviour around these keywords?

Any agency embracing these issues could make their client sit up and take notice. Using keywords as part of a new business pitch could make all the difference between winning and losing.

Footnote on ‘Juicing the Orange’

This is a great book of advertising case studies built round the idea of ‘creative leverage’.

I’ve been reading the book and writing this article on a plane on the way back from the US, and was itching to do a search on ‘creative leverage’ to see how Fallon did in the search engine results.

In best Hollywood tradition, I then wrote two endings for this article – one in which they came near the top for the search term, and the second if they didn’t.

Unfortunately, when I searched this morning they didn’t make the first page of results. However a web design company, took first spot. A case of keyword piggybacking? Whatever next?

Ken McGaffin is the chief marketing officer of