Is Search Killing Your Creative?

Telling a compelling brand story has always been the high art of creative advertising. It’s even more so in the digital age, where search optimization and search-based metrics have become the new Holy Grail. Unfortunately, for creatives, SEO is like handing a composer the most popular notes, as identified by research, and demanding a hit song. Or giving a writer word magnets from the refrigerator and expecting the Great American Novel.

To make sure your creative isn’t DOA with SEO, here’s what to do:

If you want to reach the natives of today’s consumer world, start by speaking their language. The core keyword list, or modern copywriter’s dictionary, often contains keywords that are outdated. For example, the word “stereo” for marketing home theater equipment. Or “applications” when consumers are looking for apps. If your vocabulary is not up to speed, you’ll sound strained and out of touch, and, worst of all, your search will be lame because few people are using those dusty words to find what you’re selling. But be warned: some terms that sound dated to you or your client may not be dated to your audience. For instance, inside the wireless industry, the term “cell phones” is so 1990s. However, many consumers still use that term today to search for a new mobile phone. So make sure your search terms are not only current but also relevant, in today’s vernacular, right up to the very second they go live. Then update your digital content as new terms arise, evaluating at least once a month.

Another common trap in writing for SEO is that the lifeblood of creative writing — the spark, the surprise, the emotional language — often gets thrown out with the SEO bathwater. David Carr of The New York Times hit on this recently when writing about journalism in the digital age: “Headlines in newspapers and magazines were once written with readers in mind, to be clever or catchy or evocative,” Carr states. “Now headlines are just there to get the search engines to notice.” Blogger Mike Lachey makes a similarly amusing point, retitling classic literature to boost Web site traffic: The Great Gatsby becomes 8 Surprising Ways West Egg Is Exemplary of the Hollowness of the American Dream. This challenge of maintaining evocative language is front and center for digital creatives. The clever twist of phrase, the outlandishly exaggerated headline that catches a reader’s attention is often sidestepped. Make sure your SEO-savvy copy doesn’t evoke Mr. Roboto — a preprogrammed assembly of key terms that connects with search but doesn’t connect with the hearts and minds of your audience. Along with key search terms, make sure that evocative, emotionally rich language stays in your creative mix.

Digital media has been a boon for creatives who are now empowered to stretch their ideas and bring them to life in whole new ways. However, this new creative canvas contains digital nooks and crannies that are often overlooked. SEO brings with it new opportunities for writing great headlines and copy in places such as search results, page titles, image names, alt tags and even URLs. Take advantage of these. For example, don’t overlook the chance to write a great headline for the actual search results page. Great copy in these small places is often the hidden surprise that rewards audiences precisely because they are not obvious places to “sell the message.” And, for copywriters, they offer an exclusive domain that is always enticing. There are no designers or art directors — just words, and the power that they alone can have.

When you absolutely, positively have to put mundane keywords in your headline or the account team will run screaming to the partners, relax. You’ve got more than a few arrows in your creative quiver. One is to pair your SEO yin with some visual yang. The unexpected twist on the familiar is Advertising 101, and it still works. Match your straightforward headline with a surprisingly unexpected visual. For example, a headline such as “The World’s Best Bath Soap” could be paired with an image of a large, hairy-backed man unashamedly bathing in public. The subhead: “So Good You’ll Want to Use It Everywhere.” Now, people searching for “best bath soap” will see your ad and, frankly, get a little grossed out. But their attention is yours. Mission accomplished.

Search is here to stay. As our world churns out more data and information sources in every conceivable medium, search will remain a primary means for audiences to seek out what’s relevant. Creatives who embrace this reality and learn to flourish in a world where every word, every letter, is digitized and searched will not only do their careers a big favor, but the brands they work with will also have a much better story to tell.

Bryan Cummings is CCO at The Garrigan Lyman Group. He can be reached at

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