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The Industry Speaks On The Overlap Between Search & Display

We talk a lot in the digital industry about the overlap between search media and display media, and how when planned and operated in unison, there is a 1+1=3 benefit model that magically appears, resulting in higher returns than could be generated by those channels on their own.

But does this overlap really exist, and does 1+1 really equal 3, or does is it actually just equal 2?

In order to find out the answer, I recently asked several experienced figures within our industry for their insights and comment.

  • AKQA Media – Drew Wahl, Director of Business Development
  • Booyah Advertising – Emily Iverson, Director of Display Media
  • ethology – Jeff Pruitt, CEO (and former President of SEMPO)
  • iCrossing – Chris Wallace, SVP Media

Each of these people are knowledgeable in both types of media, and are actually involved in the oversight of plans or teams where both display planning and search engine marketing are occurring, and our thanks to them for taking part in this discussion, the conclusions from which are published below (the full, unedited responses can be viewed in their entirety here).

Each contributor was asked the same two questions:

  1. Is there really an overlap between search and display that benefits campaigns, or is it just hypothetical?
  2. If there is, what are those benefits and what advice would you give a search marketer to capitalize on them?

A Convenient Story

Early in my agency days, I remember adding a slide to my overview display deck that stated (in a big, bold font of course) that ‘1+1=3’ and would wax lyrical about how we had an integrated media offering. I stood by my slide, believing that marketing across SEM and display as isolated channels could not be the right approach. In my mind, each channel had a halo effect on the other and this surely must create additional value for the advertiser.

I would quote the usual studies that demonstrated this uplift in return of anything from 2.4x to 10x when adding a display buy to a search program, but true behavioral insight always seemed to be lacking in those studies. And so a question remained in my mind as to why and how this effect occurred, and what strategies were best at making it happen.

1+1 = Something More Than 2

All our contributors report seeing real benefit from running display and search programs together in ways that help explain the mythical halo effects we have seen for years, but also that reveal themselves with quantifiable measurements.

At ethology, Jeff reports seeing that individuals will search multiple times on multiple keywords before they make a decision. This consideration window is clearly prime time for a marketer; it is the “opportunity to expose [individuals] at different points during the research experience with very targeted display that result in a higher likelihood to take an action“.

With each individual performing more searches than ever before, this window is broad, creating a greater chance a competing brand could steal that customer for themselves. Display is a tool to combat this potential leakage.

The effect of this window is measurable too according to iCrossing’s Chris Wallace. They have seen situations where this repeated exposure has led to an increase in branded search queries that has “an efficient and meaningful impact on digital campaigns“, a logical outcome when we think about how during that research phase an individual will often start with a broad query (“chicago hotel”) before narrowing it down to a solution (“doubletree hotel Chicago rates”). And if that is the case, it means we can look beyond generalizations and start to quantify.

Whilst these points suggest that display is merely increasing the frequency of an event that was occurring anyway, AKQA Media have built a digital analytics platform that is seeing users across multiple channels and is showing cases where individuals are performing brand searches that would not have done so without first having the display exposure. Clearly these agencies are able to prove today that the benefits are real.

Universal Advice – Measurement Matters

In terms of advice from the experts of what you should do, the message is loud and clear – measurement is going to be critical to understanding the overlap, but it is also not going to be easy.  The ideal solution is an attribution model that can see all your marketing investments and sort through the results to understand how each one influenced every transaction.

In previous articles,we have discussed though how this is often not possible, and at the very least is cumbersome.

With a need to measure something though, you must cut through the clutter and find something that works for you, a process that involves understanding the difference between on site and off site interactions.

At Booyah Advertising, Emily’s team will look at standard metrics such as CTR and CPA but also carry out incremental lift studies with partners like Chango in order to examine the percentage of interaction from each channel that is incremental – this helps to get a read on the maximum potential impact one channel could be having on another.

Clearly this is a good starting point, and is probably the easiest for you to report on internally – “we launched display and saw a a 20% increase in our CTR in search” for instance.

These metrics are primarily occurring and being measured off site though, they are at the point of exposure to the campaign itself. Agencies iCrossing and AKQA both responded to the questions with points that demonstrate how the behavior of individuals changes for the better ON the client’s site if they are first exposed to both search and display campaigns.

This can be measured by looking at ‘engagement metrics’ from incoming traffic such as time on site, pages visited and a very interesting point from ethology, the time to convert.

Be Prepared

So now we know that the overlap exists, that it is quantifiable, and even where we should look for the signal of evidence, should you go out and add display to your search program immediately?

Chris thinks not, and instead would “advise marketers to consider a measurement strategy BEFORE campaign launch that will be used to evaluate search and display’s combined impact during the campaign – this method allows for adjustments to made before campaigns terminate and allows for improvements to had within the campaign flight period.”

This is sound advise, especially given that in order to be looking at the overlap you must make use of unique IDs that can be read across channels, something that requires technical investment and careful planning.


The result of the equation, 1+1, does indeed equal more than 2, and with careful thought and measurement, quantifiable metrics can be discovered that will help you understand the exact answer for your own campaigns – best if planned in advance.

Clients working with AKQA Media, Booyah Advertising, ethology and iCrossing are benefitting from working with experienced and integrated teams who know how to bring these things together, and advanced techniques like search retargeting capitalize on the best of both of these worlds, and are helping all 4 agencies take this integration a step further.

According to Jeff, “advertisers that don’t take the next step to build or obtain systems that allow the search advertisers to manage the two channels in a centralized technology that appropriately attributes the impact each channel has on performance and conversions, will not be fully maximizing their advertising spend and the resulting actions.

Feel it’s a lot of work? As Emily plainly states, the overlap is real, and if you don’t believe it then “pause one of your campaigns (search or display) and measure the drop in your key performance indicators, see for yourself!

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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