SEM Vendors and Vertical Markets: Advice for Clients and Agencies

  |  August 8, 2007   |  Comments

Is there a conflict of interest when all an agency's clients are in the same vertical? Advice for clients and agencies.

One day, an agency received responses to proposals it had sent to two potential clients. In one case, the agency's proposal was accepted. In the other case, it was rejected. For both, though, the reason was the same: "All your other clients are just like us."

Vertical market knowledge can create an emotional dichotomy in client prospects. On one hand, clients want SEM (define) firms to use their experience and expertise in the client's favor. On the other hand, clients don't want that experience and expertise to be used in any other company's favor.

This is a natural reaction, and to keep all clients happy, SEM firms must respect and address it. Prospective clients must realize that ethical SEM firms will do everything possible to benefit all clients within a specific industry and will go to extreme lengths to avoid harming them.

Advice for Search Marketing Agencies

When you're trying to attract clients with the lure of vertical industry knowledge, it's extremely important to put the client at ease and make sure your insights into their industry create comfort, not paranoia:

  • Disclosure. If you're looking for something more exciting than "honesty is the best policy," sorry to disappoint you. As the expert within a field, assuming existing agreements don't prohibit this, you need to let clients know about one another and assure them all will benefit from the relationships. Be ready to explain how, and be ready to answer some of the common questions discussed below.

    The other side of the disclosure coin is working with those clients who provided you the vertical knowledge to begin with. Explaining to a prospective client that you have existing clients in a vertical market is easy. Explaining to an existing client that you're bringing on a new client in the same industry can be tricky. But for the long-term health of your client list, it should be done.

  • Benefits focus. If your firm has specific vertical market knowledge, make that a selling point. By "specific knowledge," I don't mean knowledge of other clients' SEM goals and tactics. Instead, focus on how your firm knows more about consumer behavior and competition in that industry. Typically, with knowledge of a specific business sector, you'll know such things as what types of terms are the best converters, what kind of copy resonates with users at various locations within the purchase funnel, what industry sites have SEO (define) as well as traffic benefits, and so on. No two demographic groups behave exactly alike, so a campaign can show results more quickly when it begins with market research already intact.

  • Contingency planning. Similar campaigns often produce unexpected results. If you want to keep all campaigns running smoothly, be ready to shuffle things around to keep your clients happy. I've seen some clients pick SEM firms with industry knowledge, yet request a campaign manager who doesn't work with clients in that industry. The idea is helpful information will be shared across the team, but multiple campaign managers will help avoid conflict of interest that might exist with only one campaign manager. If that's what clients want, make it happen.

Advice for Potential Clients

If you've come to an SEM firm that claims expertise within a given industry, you have the right to see some sample results. Many SEM firms have nondisclosure agreements with existing clients that prevent naming clients, at least in print. If the SEM firm can't budge from this even in an informal conversation, let the firm know it's already lost points for touting an expertise it can't verify, and ask for some additional information to substantiate the its claims. Two more tips:

  • Ask questions. When you're shopping for specialist SEM vendors, you've earned the right to know what happens in the case of a conflict of interest. What happens if the campaigns' PPC (define) components bid on overlapping keywords? What happens if the organic components target the exact same queries? What sort of information will a campaign manager share with clients about other clients? Policies may vary here, but the important thing is that don't lie awake at night worrying that you're giving away more benefit than you're receiving.

    Typically, a smart campaign manager will begin a sentence with, "Let me tell you what I've learned about search behavior in the soft drink industry..." not, "Let me tell you about Mountain Dew's bid max..."

  • See the big picture. A qualified SEM firm will increase qualified search traffic, produce (and document) a return on investment, and increase your level of engagement with potential and existing customers. If your firm achieves these goals, chances are good the firm used its industry knowledge to benefit you. If you enter an agreement with a firm and your goals are significantly different from these, you have a problem. Either you have unreasonable expectations, or your firm did a poor job explaining its services.


A search agency with in-depth vertical expertise has a great deal to offer clients of all sizes within that industry. Success relies on the agency being upfront and honest with prospects prior to signing and quickly predicting and addressing any client concerns. It also relies on the client having reasonable goals and trusting the vendor to share aggregate information across campaigns that doesn't damage either client.

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Erik Dafforn

Erik Dafforn is the executive vice president of Intrapromote LLC, an SEO firm headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. Erik manages SEO campaigns for clients ranging from tiny to enormous and edits Intrapromote's blog, SEO Speedwagon. Prior to joining Intrapromote in 1999, Erik worked as a freelance writer and editor. He also worked in-house as a development editor for Macmillan and IDG Books. Erik has a Bachelor's degree in English from Wabash College. Follow Erik and Intrapromote on Twitter.

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