The Search and Content Marketing Maturity Models

Looking back to 2006, it’s amazing to see that Covario, known then as SEMDirector, published, possibly, the very first SEM maturity model.

In the original SEM, or search maturity model, we describe five stages of growth of search programs.  At the time, these were focused on paid search programs, but they are equally relevant to SEO and content marketing.

  • Chaos:  The organization has limited trained personnel, processes, or technology for its PPC, SEO, social, and content marketing programs. 
  • Reactive:  The marketing organization has a few personnel with basic training, limited processes around keyword and content management, and some basic individual-level tools.  The team is highly reactive to competitors, or to upper management. They have no time for research, creativity, or proactive sophisticated analysis.

Annual paid search budgets start to reach $1M; budgets for SEO might reach $100K per year; social media budgets are in the $250-500K range annually.  A local or small agency might be leveraged, or a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none” team might be used in a check-the-box type exercise.  Annual analytic and automation software tool budgets for various media types are in the $25-100K range.

Content creation is “dumb.”  It’s still sporadic and unplanned.  Most media is being adapted for the traditional website with a goal of traffic to the site.   The goals of the day include basic metrics, such as search page ranking, CPMs, or the simple “my boss saw it, and was happy.”  Media buys are primarily limited to Google, Facebook, and possibly Twitter. 

  • Alignment:  At this stage, the company has realized it needs to get more serious about SEM, SEO, social and content marketing.  It is assigning management, or director-level people, a dedicated team, and investing in more enterprise-grade tools.

Processes across geographies and business units are starting to come together, along with an initial search center of excellence, or digital center of excellence.  Descriptive and rearward analytics are used more broadly, with basic CPC-, or CPA-style metrics for search and social.

The disciplines are getting better, but are still silo-ed.  Budgets for paid search start to be more than $2.5M per year; SEO is in the $250K per year range; and paid and earned social is now budged at the $1M+ annual threshold.

At this point, the company starts to think about in-house vs. outsourced-type questions, and whether to go all-in-one or best-of-breed for external agencies.  Separate budgets for tools start to exceed $100K per year.

However, the focus tends to still be on paid media types, with a growing awareness of the importance of earned and owned media for content marketing.   Experiments with global and local marketing and content are starting to occur, as well as more focus on mobile and video optimization.  At this point, concepts of smarter marketing are starting to take hold. The development of a content calendar, social seeding and sharing initiatives, and big data and analytics for content are gaining some traction. 

  • Proactive:  In the proactive stage, the company begins to leverage predictive and prescriptive analytics and automation.  Instead of just looking at what happened, data is used to predict what might happen, and what the marketers should do about it.  A larger, more experienced team is brought on board, either to do all of paid search, SEO, content marketing, and social in-house, or to manage larger budgets and teams through an external agency.

KPIs tend to move toward profitability, margin, and growth metrics, along with a strategic competitive share of voice indicators.  More advanced algorithms are deployed, and attribution modeling starts to occur, along with cross-media metrics.

Budgets for SEM might be $5-10M now; SEO becomes more about off-page marketing, and starts to intersect social and content with budgets of $500K to even $1M-plus per year.  Social is now exceeding $2.5M annually, and the technology budget for the various media disciplines is in the $250-500K range.

Executives recognize the need to have appropriate content targeting and media optimization for changing strategies, tactics at each level, and to have integrated campaigns across multiple screens.  More creative use of infographics, apps, games, user-generated content, ratings and reviews, and a range of media channels is taking place.  New publisher experimentation is occurring.  At this stage, organizations are carving 5-10% out of their budgets for experiments and optimization as they aggressively pursue new opportunities in any media.

Proactive marketers start to consider how smarter content can be leveraged to maximize SEO and social marketing, and to better allocate budget across the funnel and customer lifecycle for various objectives.  Objectives move from just last click conversions to being found, friended, followed, and forwarded for various purposes, including reach, depth, and engagement.  Best-of-breed, in-house, and agency partnerships emerge with lines blurring across the embedded partners and internal professional staff. 

  • Strategic:  At the strategic stage in the search and content maturity curve, search, social, and content marketing has visibility at the CEO, CMO, and CFO level.    Strategies and tactics have direct correlation with corporate and marketing strategies for geographic and business unit expansion.

More creative uses of media, including leveraging channel-partner ecosystems for co-marketing synergy, true paid/owned/earned media combine modeling and attribution models, as well as persona and segment-level research and targeting, is occurring.  Paid search budgets are now $10-25M, or more, per year; SEO budgets are in the $2.5-5M annual range; social is now budgeted at $5-10M annually; and integrated technology budgets are exceeding $1M per year.

The organization may choose to develop proprietary tools and techniques in-house, or in conjunction with third-party partners in long-term relationships.  Creative use of the ecosystem develops nearly individual-level targeting in real time, and maximizes all forms of discovery marketing – search, share, and serendipity.

In the strategic phase, content calendars are being planned 3-6 months out, but the content is also adaptive and self-optimizing in real-time.  Channel partners and end consumers/customers are all engaged in the inspiration, creation, and distribution processes.   The ROI of paid, earned, and owned media is being maximized.

We hope this updated, and more specific, view of the search and content maturity curve gives you a reference point for where your organization is currently, and a vision of where it can go.

No matter where you place your organization on the curve, remember that it’s always an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary one.  There is an art and skill for a search marketing manager, or digital marketing director, to lead your CEO, CMO, or CFO up the curve, to obtain the resources, staffing, and tools you need to take your organization to the next maturity level.  It’s a smarter way to manage, and the smartest way to get to smarter content.