April 13, 2010
 

Dana Todd: Search & Newsforce Superhero!

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By Wendy McHale

Wonder Woman is a Superhero for the ages. Originally created at a pivotal time in history, Wonder Woman made her debut in December of 1941, in an environment much like today; when most could use a hero coming to their rescue. Thankfully, there is! Ms. Dana Todd!

Dana made her debut onto the digital scene in an equally auspicious time, back in 1995. Those who know her could easily vouch that there's a Superhero-esque quality about her. Besides her success as a serial entrepreneur, she and a group of other search superheroes decided to be "Ambassadors of Truth" for search.

In 2003, they created their own trade organization, SEMPO, which today spans 37 countries and has over 850 corporate and individual members. Ms. Todd serves as its chairperson.

Today, Dana is on to her second entrepreneurial quest. She is CMO of Newsforce Inc., a service which offers easy-to-use press release optimization software and a new PR Network which lets Newsforce's clients have an always-on brand management and "news voice" to speak directly to readers of major premium news sites.

Imagine my excitement then when I had an opportunity to sit down with her, in between her leaping optimized PR placements in a single bound :--)

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Wendy: How's it going?

Dana: It's going very well, thanks!

Wendy: Before we jump right into our discussion of Newsforce, SEMPO and ad:tech, tell me a little about yourself. What is the career path that led you to the digital world? How long have you been involved the search industry?

Dana: It's a fairly convoluted path that took me from journalism to online marketing, with a brief segue through print advertising and a failed acting career. I've been doing online since 1995, when I joined one of the first interactive agencies in the US.

Wendy: What was it called?

Dana: We named it Bien Logic. We built some of the first commercial and corporate sites on the Web, and got to experiment with what were then bleeding-edge technologies like Shockwave, micropayments, online chat, java, VRML and online video.

Wendy: What was your vision?

Dana: I bought the agency with some partners in 1997 and renamed it SiteLab, and our emphasis was originally in performance media and web development. At the time, we were already doing SEO on our clients' sites and buying keyword-triggered banners on Yahoo and other search engines.

Wendy: So you saw the value of search very early.

Dana: Yes, the returns we generated using search were phenomenal, even more dramatic than now because the web audience was so small. We actually once got a 40% click rate on a keyword banner! Needless to say, I was hooked. We put a lot of resources into building our search expertise, and I found a side passion evangelizing search marketing to the public via speaking engagements and writing.

Wendy: Newsforce is your second start-up, SiteLab of course being your first venture. It takes a certain type of person to thrive in start-up environments, which often range from being hectic to chaotic. What is it that you like most about creating something from scratch?

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Dana: I'm genetically engineered for startups and the entrepreneurial life. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs: my mom is an artist and my dad is a petroleum geologist (oil hunter). I really like creating things, whether it's a company or a work of art.

Wendy: That's interesting.

Dana: To have an idea you can feel in your gut is really, really good, and to put it out there and find other people who believe in you, who bring their own collaborative energies into the genesis - well, it's exhilarating. Of course it's frustrating, and a bit terrifying some days. Who the heck starts up a company in a recession? Brave entrepreneurs who have a vision for what's next around the corner, that's who.

Wendy: Do you intuitively know if a venture will be successful?

Dana: It's hard to predict successes. I am sometimes surprised at what piques the interest of the masses.

Wendy: Give me an example.

Dana: Hmmm... How about the whole "LOLcats" phenomena?

Wendy: LOL! I agree with you there!

Dana: But seriously, I trust my gut. It's seldom wrong when it's gonging loudly at me. I'm actually a bit conservative, in that I prefer to invest in new business models more than making things that entertain people. It's not as sexy as the "Internet shiny objects" that seem to get the most press, but in the long run I believe it's more viable. You have to be really patient and doggedly stubborn to make a startup work, though. And it's best to surround yourself with smart, optimistic people who can keep you focused on changing the world.

Wendy: No doubt. Let's switch gears. Being in the news business, it comes as no surprise that the economy is slowing down significantly. Everything is leading to a softer media marketplace. Up until now it's been too early to make predictions about this upcoming holiday season. We haven't heard that much on it's going to have on search. Google's Q3 earnings results suggest search is still very strong. Do you foresee an increase, decrease or flat spend in digital media in Q4? Will spending rebound after the election? Where will the steepest curves be? Display, search or social media?

Dana: My projection is that search will not be impacted as greatly as other media types, though, since it's primarily used as performance media. As to the election, I honestly don't think it has much to do with search spending given the behavior of the market this year. I do expect that 2009 budgets will be flat the first half, as everyone waits to see how it shakes out.

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Wendy: If this business is excellent at anything it's the ability to take an interesting topic like social media and bludgeon it to death with hype, which only generates fear, confusion and lack of certainty of how it fits into a marketer's program. What's your take?

Dana: I agree that we've overhyped the word and created a bit of a monster. It's like when every information site was being labeled a "portal". Social Media as a marketing method is still evolving, and it's so poorly defined that it's being slapped as a label on pretty much anything these days. I'd really like to either have a clearer definition of "what is social media" or drop the label altogether.

Wendy: Do you have an example

Dana: Sure, do you consider YouTube to be social media? I don't - it's an entertainment site that happens to have user profiles and community elements. Facebook and MySpace I think are classic social media platforms, but what about Twitter? It's really microblogging, which is personal publishing.

Wendy: I never thought of it that way.

Dana: There's an element of social media, sure, but the *intent* of it is personal publishing and broadcasting. Is Meetup social media or an event calendaring site?

Wendy: Okay.

Dana: One of the things I would like to see is more collaboration between PR and marketing teams. Social media and search engine reputation management demand a better sense of appropriate and valuable communication relationships with the public, with the intent of changing public opinion or creating a groundswell of buzz about your brand.

Wendy: Right.

Dana: Those are all goals more closely identified with PR than sales-driven marketing. The problem is, it's hard to defend on an advertising budget when you can't tie it into your ROI equations neatly, particularly if you're doing a lot of search or performance media.

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Wendy: How about branded content? Online PR?

Dana: PR agencies and corporate communications professionals have experience doing public outreach and media relations, and they have cost and measurement models already built for this type of outreach which may be able to be carried over into social media. However, PR people are a bit new to the online game, and could benefit from the technical and tactical knowledge that online marketing teams have to share. There are some cringe-worthy stories about poorly executed campaigns from major PR firms which I think serve as a lesson for everyone (here's a recent scorecard from Forrester). They could benefit from the audience profiling exercises that marketing teams do, to fully understand the psychographic makeup of target audiences and how to create compelling experiences for them. It's putting the "public" back in public relations.

Wendy: Recent books such as "Distracted" and "What's Happening to Home?" attempt to make the case that digital media and multi-tasking, among other things, are decreasing our attention span. Is there any truth to this and if there is, is it bad?

Dana: What? Sorry, I was staring at a shiny object.

Wendy: LOL!

Dana: I absolutely agree that we're overwhelmed and overcommunicated, overexposed and A.D.D. I can literally feel sometimes in my own brain how being hyperconnected has affected my ability to just relax and take in a nice sunset. I wasn't like this before the internet. What's interesting though is that many of the younger generation are switching off major channels themselves such as TV and email, and only operating via mobile and social media/IM. They've self policed their intake devices. The rest of us are still suffering because we're unable to give up some of our older consumption habits while fully embracing new ones.

Wendy: I agree.

Dana: The downside is that personal relationships and true learning capabilities may be diminished. We already have evidence that younger generations are simply not consuming journalism and news from mainstream media. They are more likely to get their "news" from The Daily Show or on a gossip site. Learning has to be presented as entertainment with them.

Wendy: Let's talk about search. Search agencies are under fire today. There's no meaningful certification system, no licensing requirements, and no neutral third parties out there separating the good guys from the fly-by-nights. The result is that everybody in the SEM business must continually try to prove that they're not crooks and charlatans, instead of selling their value proposition. One idea being floated is for SEM agencies to start actually insuring their clients against the kind of catastrophic losses that can occur when these agencies drop the ball. What do you think of that solution?

Dana: The question really is, why the same set of expectations aren't being applied to traditional or online ad agencies.? There's no certification or licensing for ad agencies and PR firms, and no guarantee that the work they do for you is going to make your brand #1 or your product sales go through the roof. What's core here is that people understand advertising for the most part; they don't understand SEM fully, so there's a lot of fear and uncertainty there. Also, too many people don't balance their marketing portfolio, and are so far leveraged into search as their primary channel that it's a high risk no matter what.

Wendy: That's interesting to hear from you.

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Dana: Let me be clear. I'm not saying there's not significant value to search marketing and search marketers. Frankly, many leaders in our space are utterly brilliant, and combine fiscal pragmatism with technical innovation to constantly push the envelope. The problem is, there just aren't enough employees out there with talent and experience. And, by the way, often when you investigate a "catastrophic loss" you find that clients have either not implemented suggestions given by the agency, or they've undone the work by changing the site in some way.

Wendy: How does this tie in with SEMPO?

Dana: One of the cornerstones of SEMPO's mission is education - to help people become better practitioners and buyers of search services and media. We do have certificate programs to train people on search, and we do offer agency programs that will certify their employees have reached a certain level of education with us and are maintaining it. Knowing what you're buying makes you a better client partner. Some of our agency members are actually requiring that their clients go through our certificate programs, so that they don't mess up the groundwork.

Wendy: Interesting.

Dana: It's like carrying insurance, that's just good business. It's standard practice for most tech companies to carry Errors & Omissions insurance, not because they're charlatans but because that's just what you do in today's business world.

Wendy: That's impressive. The industry buzz is that 2009 will be the year that mobile advertising will gain real traction with programs that make sense for advertisers. That said, there are some 400 different combinations of handsets and operating systems out there. Are there any companies poised to take the lead?

Dana: I don't think there's any clear leader yet in terms of mobile ad networks. I think we're still figuring out how to engage people on their phones beyond a few seconds at a time. Search is a logical front-runner no matter what, but we're still pretty limited right now to local queries and mapping outcomes as opposed to ecommerce or other "conversions" that are useful in automating the advertising campaigns. I do like some of the pitches I'm hearing for couponing on my phone, or tied to my supermarket loyalty cards.

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Wendy: It appears that ad:tech New York's agenda is more ambitious than ever before. There seems to be more going on than ever before. Moving into 2009 what are the biggest challenges facing the digital industry?

Dana: We can't hide from the economic times, and we already seeing major customers simply go away. I actually attended my first ad:tech during the first recession of the century, right after the dot-com collapse. It was really saddening to see so many brilliant minds get their funding pulled, forcing them to walk away from the blistering-speed innovation that was happening at the time. While I don't think we're going to see that level of devastation, I do worry about a slowdown in innovation. This last year I have seen an unprecedented number of great technological developments, and I would hate to see that trend ending.

Wendy: I think everyone reading this would agree!

Dana: I think our biggest challenge outside the economy is to rethink our measurement approaches across all media, not just Internet. One of the reasons for the significant gap between offline and online spending has to do with the gap in how we measure success. The Internet still looks puny in its reach compared to a lot of offline media, if you are comparing new metrics to old metrics. Until we find a happy medium that we can all live with, I'm afraid we'll have to settle for an undervalued slice of the total ad dollar.

Wendy: One of the frustrations in our industry has been the lack of qualified talent who understand both digital platforms and consumer marketing. Is that changing? Do you work with interns? What advice would you give to a college graduate who wants to get into the interactive business?

Dana: Lack of talent is probably one of the biggest things holding back the growth of most companies, to be honest. Not that it's unique to the Internet, of course - this lament has gone on since time immemorial. If talent was widespread, it probably wouldn't be called talent. Same with leadership skills. Those who combine the creativity to capture the engagement of a mass audience with the technical possibilities of the Internet are truly rare birds. To get more of these birds will require education and time.

Wendy: Agreed.

Dana: Since there are so few formal education programs teaching internet marketing with any depth or specificity, I suspect the first thing we need to do is pressure academia to adopt higher standards of training, and to help them out by teaching courses and building coursework. There will always be a special place for top leaders and talent to shine, but if we build more bridges for traditional talent to come over to our world, we can beef up our ranks considerably.

Wendy: Do you have an internship program at Newsforce?

Dana: We have an intern at Newsforce who is really awesome, and SiteLab also generally has an intern or two hanging around. Interns are great - cheap sources of labor and energy - but they can also bring high risk to a smaller organization since they're temporary and are generally prone to making mistakes.

Wendy: That's true!

Dana: My advice to people who want to come in:
1. Start out with your own little business. Write a blog, and learn to monetize it. Sell a few books as an affiliate. Learn some rudimentary HTML. If you don't learn know it's like to have skin in the game, you won't respect the risks of being trusted with millions of dollars of other people's money.
2. Don't underestimate the value of the basics: Get damned good with Excel, and practice good spelling without Spellcheck. Learn fundamentals of marketing and advertising theory - they provide a solid foundation on which to build innovation.
3. Don't misrepresent your skills - it's dangerous to everyone if you lie.
4. Find a mentor, even if they're outside the industry. You'll need them for business advice and sounding board. My best mentor was my first advertising client, and he's still my mentor.
5. Read everything you can get your hands on, even spam.
6. Don't forget that ultimately any business is all about people, so give a little to everyone on your way up, in case you have to see them again on your way down!

Wendy: That's for sure! What is it about ad:tech that keeps you coming back?

Dana: Several things, the energy and excitement. The opportunity to get deals done. It generates a fair amount of business for all participants.

Wendy: What else?

Dana: Seeing old friends, meeting new ones. Running the gauntlet in the Expo hall to see if I can spot trends across the entire industry in a single walk-through. It's about trying to absorb the enormity of our possibilities online.

Wendy: You're moderating the panel "Search & Social Synergy," right?

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Dana: I am. I hope to see you!

Wendy: Oh yeah! It's on my dance card. Thanks Dana, this was great!

Dana: It was my pleasure. See you at ad:tech.

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