An Interview featuring Mike Grehan and Collin Colburn, Senior Analyst at Forrester

In our latest episode of Acronym TV, we talked with Collin Colburn, Senior Analyst at Forrester, about the research they’ve been doing on the evolution of the search marketing industry into the performance marketing industry. We also discuss how businesses adapted their search marketing efforts in 2020 to combat the pandemic. Watch the video or read our summary notes below to learn all this and more.

Host: Mike Grehan, Acronym
Guest: Collin Colburn, Senior Analyst at Forrester

Importance of SEO in your Performance Marketing mix with Forrester | AcronymTV from Acronym on Vimeo.

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Measuring ‘Waves’ & SEO Trends

Forrester is a market research firm; providing research and advisory services to enterprise businesses as it relates to their marketing and their technology strategies. Forrester does a bunch of different research and their research outputs in the form of a report vary from one to another. One of those reports is called a wave, which is an objective independent evaluation of a vendor or agency landscape. Selection is based on a bunch of criteria and are vendors or agencies that are most relevant to the enterprise client base.

For the SEO platforms wave, Forrester has seven different vendors that are part of that evaluation, all of them very relevant to enterprise businesses. All of them were able to provide technology and services that can be used across the SEO process — technical support, content support, workflow support. Forrester evaluated them and the result is a really great piece of research because they really got to see sort of how those platforms have innovated, things that they’ve changed over the past couple of years, and where they’re headed.

The future direction is very interesting because you have a lot of SEO vendors that are very exclusively focused on just good old SEO and then you have some that are really pushing content marketing and are thinking about how all of the best practices and good insights that come from organic search can be applied elsewhere within the marketing organization.

When corporations had to cut paid media budgets in 2020, organic marketing really took center stage.

Colin says, “In 2020, SEO sort of took center stage in a lot of corporations because so many of them had to cut budget for paid media efforts and that really made the markers at those organizations reliant on organic marketing, whether that was digital, physical, traditional organic efforts. Earned and owned media was really the big priority for 2020. So I think we saw a lot of organization start to consider content marketing a part of SEO last year, where basically every piece of content that was going out, whether that was for a paid media campaign, or if it was for the website, a newsletter, whatever, was optimized for that user experience, which SEO is so good at being able to do.”

CMOs are Driving Innovation

We certainly see CMOs at so many organizations really being positioned within the organization to drive innovation. They’ve already been responsible for getting the brand or the product to market, driving awareness, fueling the growth engine and using both customer insights and their knowledge of the product and the service to make change. Now they’re digging into those roles to really come together with other folks in the C-suite to come up with new ideas. I think we saw that so much in the pandemic where major restaurant chains were sort of setting themselves up as both a restaurant and grocery service because so many of them have products getting delivered all the time. You also had hotel chains that were using some of their space as a temporary office space, not just as somewhere you can go and sleep for a night. We saw a lot of innovation driven by the CMO’s and expect to see that continue moving forward.

Enterprise Businesses Can’t Pivot as Quickly as Small Business

One of the things we noticed in Q2 of 2020 is how many of the larger companies weren’t really prepared, not that anybody was prepared for a pandemic, but just not prepared to swiftly shift the business online enough to be able to survive. A lot of smaller companies and even low-tech companies seemed to be able to achieve that a lot easier.

It’s interesting to see that the information we’re seeing is that big companies are looking to put 20% more into SEO this year to help establish a stronger online foothold that isn’t as dependent on paid media. Forrester and our team at Acronym are seeing “SEO” used more broadly to include the technical stuff and conventional SEO that it always has as well as the wider content strategy.

Is SEO Part of Content Marketing Strategy, or is Content Marketing Part of Your SEO Strategy?

Many marketers that we talk to are actually putting SEO either underneath their content strategy team or putting content marketing underneath SEO strategy. The hierarchy really depends on the needs of the organization and you’re seeing this coming together of different channels or tactics within the organization beginning to consolidate around the core use case of the channel for the customer.

When it comes to SEO, it really is all about content. Yes, technical capabilities and making sure you have ongoing scrubbing of the website from a technical perspective is still super important but at the end of the day, it’s akin to: if a tree falls in the forest will anyone hear it? It’s the same for your website; if you put really good content on your website will anyone find it if Google isn’t crawling it?

The core differentiation that marketers are looking for in their individual market or individual industry comes down to the content that they’re providing, the information that they’re giving to their user, and how relevant it is to what the customer or the consumer is looking for. We’re seeing a much greater focus around content efforts, much more so than in past years.


You got to ask the question: if you didn’t have content what would you be optimizing anyway?


The content experience itself has changed so much and the right way to provide that content changes by context. Maybe a web page is a good solution, maybe it’s just an image, maybe it’s a 30-second video, maybe it’s a 150-page PDF document. It depends on what the query is, as it always has, but now also depends on who you are, where you are, what device you’re using, where you are in your purchase path, what time of day it is, and all of these other contextual things that get folded into it.

Are Enterprise Companies Consolidating Agency Services?

Forrester’s search research, the Search Wave, became the Performance Wave about 18 months ago. Collin explains that shift a bit more to us by using this example of a client of theirs who is trying to align the different agencies they work with.

“A CMO that I talked to earlier this morning at a financial services firm was trying to figure out how they can position their agencies better in regards to the way that they are trying to think about their overall marketing engagement. Her view is that the full marketing funnel is supported by their brand marketing efforts; traditional TV ad buys, display advertising, outdoor or out-of-home advertising, all really supports that full-funnel brand marketing objective. But what she was really focused on was that performance marketing piece, which is a little bit more narrow and a little bit more focused on really a couple things; in-market customers or existing customers, that they’re trying to enrich, and the specific consideration and conversion stages of the marketing funnel. So she was trying to position her agencies around those two primary objectives. What has been interesting to note is that while she wants to align all her agencies, she was really looking at shifting to one agency to do all their performance marketing since she felt it could be better streamlined by one agency that was going to manage all their search, social, and programmatic marketing activity.”

How SEO is Evolving

SEO is evolving and moving from being seen as primarily a traffic driver to being more of a full-funnel solution. SEO is now viewed more as a tactic that is going to support driving awareness, driving consideration, and eventually driving purchases. And the reason for this change is rooted in the many changes that we’ve seen going on within search results. SERPs aren’t just 10 blue links anymore, they’re more information-based, more answer-based, and expand beyond just the actual search result page and into smart devices, smart homes, and smart cars. And it makes sense, if you’re able to provide content that is going to get the user the information that they are looking for, you’re more likely to be remembered further down that cycle when the customers actually looking for a product or service, whether it is related to that original search or not.

The Importance of Structured Data

Google’s looked at many ways of trying to make it easier to bring in new content and keep fresh what they already have and it’s a very difficult job. It’s also really, really expensive. Most people don’t realize that even though Google’s a very wealthy company, the most expensive thing they do is crawl this massive amount of data and then try and keep it fresh for Google Search users. To reduce the resources required, they looked at other ways of trying to speed things up and one of those ways is by using structured data to essentially label the different elements of a web page.

With the unstructured data, Google has to come and find the data and then try and make sense of it. Structured data helps to let Google know what’s on the page and how it should be interpreted. Both Acronym & Forrester have seen companies paying more attentioned to structured data this year, specifically with things like images, videos on a site, being able to leverage schema markup, to be able to use that structured data to communicate to Google what is on the web page and how should it be represented within the search result. We’ve also seen it with rich snippets on the search results, things like the star ratings and reviews are left on a location or on a web page. There are so many different elements of structured data that are now being used by marketers because they know two things primarily.

  1. You will have some sort of impact on the way that your content could rank and be presented within the search results.
  2. It’s going to give you a better opportunity to get into the answer box within Google because they’re using lots of different signals, including structured data signals, to be able to determine what’s going to rank within the answer box and what’s not going to.

Marketers are taking into consideration not only how valuable the content is to the consumer but how good the user experience is. And that’s so much of what structured data is about: providing a better experience on-site for the user. So maybe our discussions on Core Web Vitals should be less focused on page speed and more focused on making changes that improve the user experience.


Structured data is really about providing a better on-site experience for the user.


People have always talked about how paid search is the sprint and SEO is a marathon. Structured data changes this quite a lot given that many people were able have their on-site changes quickly updated in the SERPs using structured data. It creates kind of an opportunity to almost update your organic content in real-time which is essential when your operating hours are changing on a weekly basis.

Focusing on Google Places & Owning Local Properties

That’s one of the reasons we’ve seen so many brick-and-mortar brands place a greater emphasis around SEO because it is more of a real-time update you can make. Different state-by-state laws around when a place can open and what kind of service they can provide have necessitated more agility. So many of these retailers had to take ownership of their Google My Business pages and the location pages on their website to really be able to let consumers know what to expect when you were coming into a location. Local certainly took a big, big priority last year.

Ecommerce Trends for 2021 & Beyond

It will be very interesting to see how e-commerce sales change going over the next six months in particular as we’re starting to see things reopen. We’re starting to see people have greater consumer confidence. We’re starting to see significant proportions of the population get vaccines. So time will certainly tell.

As someone who is an analyst where part of his job is to help foresee the trends that are going to emerge going forward, Collin thinks that we will see a little bit of a dip in the e-commerce sales that have occurred. A couple of reasons for that include:

  1. 46% of U.S. consumers during the pandemic said that they wanted to resume their normal shopping habits. There are many people who miss going to the mall, for example.
  2. There will be consumers that will definitely have greater confidence to go back into stores and who will want to go back to stores. People who have been craving that social human interaction.
  3. Retailers have seen the online revenue opportunities. Originally their mixed sales were about 80/20 — 80% in-store, 20% online. Since the pandemic, it’s almost completely reversed where they’re about 67% online and 33% in-store. What they’re trying to figure out now is how much is that going to change over the next 6 to 12 months. Their hypothesis, and actually their hope, is that it will be more 50/50 for them. So that’s still a pretty significant change from what it was before but still also a little bit of a decrease in terms of the overall mix since the pandemic has begun.
  4. Direct-to-consumer (D2C) companies need to have an offline presence to be really successful. Many D2C companies hit a point of growth where the only real place to keep growing is to be directly in front of a consumer in the form of a physical product. These companies will do very well with the consumer market that wants to go shopping.

We might see an initial little dip in terms of the growth that we’ve seen since last year, but e-commerce is likely going to continue that slow-paced growth that we’ve seen.


It’s hard to recap this episode of Acronym TV into a summary version and we’ve had to make some edits for readability. Be sure to watch the video for more great takeaways!

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