Can search construct relationships between consumers and brands?
All advertising methods (like all advertising professionals) want to do branding.
Brand work has allure. It represents strong strategic thinking and deeper creative. Its budgets are large. Online advertising fought mightily in its early years to make sure it was considered a branding medium. It was a good struggle, and it helped evolve the medium. We have the branding challenge to thank (at least in part) for such things as streaming video and Flash. Display advertising is now definitely perceived as a method for branding a product or company.
Now, display advertising's kid brother, search, is going down the same path. We know the search engines are convinced of search engine marketing's (SEM's) ability to achieve branding goals. But they clearly have a stake in the game (remember that bit about big budgets?). Advertisers are currently somewhat skeptical. Should they be? The opportunity to do branding via search creates a great opportunity to think a bit deeper about the way search is planned, bought, and measured.
Advertisers Are Interested in Search, but Not Enough
In our continued survey work with search engine marketers, we find a large number of advertisers see branding as a benefit of search. Many set branding as a campaign goal. The trouble is measurement. Hardly any marketers even measure search campaign brand effect. Branding is viewed as a happy side effect of search. It's cool if someone discovers your company or product as a result of searching for something they're passionate about or interested in.
A significant reason for this lack of follow-through is the difficulty of measuring for branding, particularly with search. Because you pay for clicks and set your own price, you need a very clear sense of what a click's value is. If the click is supposed to lead to a purchase, you have a great beacon to navigate a bid strategy toward: the item's price. Without that beacon, you can easily feel lost.
Search Branding, Step One: Develop the Beacon
This is great, often trotted-out advice for marketers who use search to drive branding: create a conversion event. To extend the above metaphor, build a beacon. The most common tactic is to use a campaign to get people signed up for your email newsletter. It's great advice. A sign up is in fact a conversion. It comes complete with a thank-you page and everything. This means you can even use Google's or Yahoo's free tools to directly measure campaign effectiveness.
Many marketers have a sense of the real economic value of a newsletter subscriber. They can roughly forecast newsletter subscribers' purchase probability based on historical data. This is extremely useful as you begin to understand how much to bid for these leads.
Other good conversion events include requesting more information, using a configurator, and visiting a particular site area.
Search Branding, Step Two: Measure Horizontally
Part of the problem with the way search is measured is each search and site visit is measured independently. Marketers look at searches, not searchers. That focus, and the fact search engines currently center their reporting methodologies on individual transactions, hampers the growth of using search for branding.
We generally know people's queries become longer and more precise as they move closer to making a purchase, for example. They start with "camera" and move to "Sony 3.2 megapixel digital camera." If you sell one of these cameras, your ad could be shown to the searcher for each search between those two poles. You may even get clicks along the way. You would, in fact, be building a relationship with that searcher in each transaction and generating value along the way.
Trouble is, you don't know it. Plus, you potentially pay for that lead repeatedly if he keeps clicking your ad rather than visiting you directly.
This consideration path within search engine use must be exposed to marketers if they're going to plan and measure search campaigns for branding purposes. Microsoft seems to be leaning in this direction with the additional data it plans to provide. It's interesting to consider the opportunity to change a bid or creative copy based on whether someone has clicked on your ad before. It may not come for a while, but it would certainly encourage marketers to develop strategies around paying for the incremental value gains that occur during nonconverting site visits.
This path clearly represents a level of sophistication, and some marketers are already heading down it. Although you can't do anything now about the ad you serve, you can do plenty on your landing page. If you set a cookie detailing someone's past visits or purchases, you can grab that data when the person revisits via search (or any other way, for that matter). You can then craft a message that either hits on that person's interest points or follows through on previous messaging.
Either way, it moves search away from being a series of discrete transactions toward becoming the basis for constructing a relationship. That's really the difference between direct and branding when you come right down to it.
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Gary Stein is SVP, strategy and planning in iCrossing's San Francisco office. He has been working in marketing for more than a decade. Gary lives in San Francisco with his family. Follow him on Twitter: @garyst3in. The opinions expressed in Gary's columns are his alone.
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