February 20, 2017

Four Things I Learned from Silicon Valley

  • Subline: A few insights after visiting Google and Walmart Labs
The Googleplex is full of cute robots peddling desserts. The Googleplex is full of cute robots peddling desserts.

I’ve been to out to the San Francisco Bay Area once before, but it was years ago, before social media and online marketing became so critical for our clients. So earlier this month when I had the opportunity to join a trip organized by our digital partners over at KeyMedia Solutions, I jumped at the chance. We only spent a couple of days in Silicon Valley, but we connected with some amazingly talented people. The highlights of our visit were at the Googleplex, the massive headquarters campus of Google and Alphabet in Mountain View, and at Walmart Labs Global eCommerce in Sunnyvale. Here are four things I picked up along the way.

  • Even Google Struggles With the Big Picture. I’ve had some questions from clients lately about average click-through rates, so I’ve done a lot of research on industry benchmarks. (And big shoutout to KeyMedia on this. Their data has been phenomenally helpful.) But while metrics like CTRs and CPCs are useful and important to review on an ongoing basis, they don’t tell the whole story. During our time on the Google campus, I asked our agency lead about his take. He acknowledged that when it comes to online marketing, the bigger picture is far more critical. How many people are we bringing to our website, how much is it costing us, and what are they doing when they get there? In other words, what kind of return are we getting on our marketing investment? He said that he regularly fields questions from advertisers who stray too far into the weeds and get over-focused on certain metrics - click-through rates in particular. “And that was really a problem of our own making,” he said. “Google built our search engine marketing business, especially in the early days, around CTRs. It’s a quick and easy number to understand. But online marketing and digital advertising are so much bigger than that. It’s a challenge to pull people out and see the big picture. It requires a shift in thinking.”
  • The Smaller Guys Are More Efficient. We also had a chance to meet with Paul at Walmart Labs. This was a hugely insightful conversation, partly because Paul lived in South Dakota for a time and managed search engine marketing buys for small organizations. Now he manages SEM campaigns for Walmart’s products division, which advertises everything from Panasonic televisions to BHG outdoor furniture to Barbie dolls. The scale of these campaigns is massive - Paul suggested a budget of around a million dollars a day - and highly complex. But using the skills he acquired managing smaller campaigns, Paul was soon able to find ways to make some of the ad buys more efficient. When he presented a plan to eliminate more than six figures worth of wasteful spending, his superiors were pleased, but also relieved. "At least it’s only six figures!" came the response. The moral, Paul told us: small agencies like us often run our client campaigns more tightly than the big guys. When we’re working with small clients with small budgets, every dollar counts, and we put in the time to get the most impact from every last cent.

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  • Silicon Valley Revolves Around Food. It was impossible to ignore: food and drink is everywhere. You’re never more than a few steps from a cafeteria, coffee bar, kitchen, or juice bar. And the prevailing culture has embraced this and packaged it into hospitality that almost borders on the oppressive. When you show up for a meeting: “So nice to meet you! Are you hungry? Want to grab a bite?” When there’s a lull in conversation: “... So, anyone thirsty? Juice? Coffee?” When you agree on plans: “Fantastic. Anyone want to go grab some fruit?” When you leave: “Great to see you! Want anything to eat or drink for the road?” It’s a bit like being at Grandma’s house… you know, if Grandma were a skilled developer and had an uber contemporary sense of decorating.
  • People Forgot It Rains in California. It rained every day of our visit. I’d managed to check the forecast ahead of the trip and I packed an umbrella, which I carried everywhere. It didn’t take long before I realized that I was practically the only one. Californians - even in the Bay Area - have been in a drought so long, apparently, they’ve forgotten that rain is a type of weather that occasionally happens.

It was a short trip, but I made some good connections with amazing people. In fact, I’m hoping I can make another visit later this year: I’ve got a buddy at Netflix who would love to catch up, and there’s an opportunity at a conference Twitter is setting up this summer.

Maybe I’ll bring some umbrellas for gifts.