Are you not taking the brand impact of search into account?
PPC search marketing and contextual ad managers at companies which generally spend millions a month on brand advertising rarely take the brand impact of search into account. At least that's my experience, having spoken to dozens of marketing managers, marketing VPs, and even CMOs at both clients and with folks I run into at conferences. Over the next several years, I think the brand impact of search and the ability of search to influence attitudes along with latent buying behavior will increasingly be integrated into the KPIs used to optimize online PPC campaigns.
Branding can be as important as getting the sale, and nearly every PPC search marketer out there uses pure direct response metrics and KPIs to manage and optimize their campaigns. That's all well and good if your company doesn't care about influencing consumers and business buyers and prefers to delude itself into thinking that all that needs be done is harvest existing interest and demand for your product or service.
Ironically, a commonly held belief is that search engine marketing gets too much credit for the sale, due to the fact that for many keywords, the last behavior to be exhibited before the sale is a search, particularly brand keywords. While this is true and other media marketing and PR all combine to generate awareness and even directly stimulate search behavior in many cases (fueling the race to attribution), most search visitors - even the later buying cycle searchers - aren't going to convert within the session. Does this mean that all search visits other than those who converted online within the lifetime of the cookie were in fact worthless? Not a chance.
If you're going to give other media credit for helping influence the sale, particularly for delivering branding, you need to be giving search traffic credit for delivering a highly engaging, immersive branding experience to searchers who visit your site. Your site should certainly be providing a better branding experience than any external advertising method other than perhaps video. I'm not simply talking about the "keyword assist" that became popular several years ago. I'm talking about influence that may take weeks or months to manifest into buying behavior, perhaps even offline buying behavior.
Here's how to begin the process of intelligently including brand impact into your PPC bidding strategy. First, evaluate which keywords are likely to be early funnel keywords. These keywords will be a combination of generic one- or two-word searches that tend to indicate that most searchers don't know what they want yet. For example, keywords such as travel, insurance, laptop, or even two-word phrases that indicate the consumer is in the early research stage of the purchase process. Separately, you have to categorize research phrases that might be longer or reflect a person's likely demographic fit. For example, for my wife, a New York City psychologist, she has a page that ranks well for "dating mistakes" in both Google and Bing (it's nice for her that she has a hubby in the business). In this case, the visitors have no expressed or implied interest in therapy, but there is clearly some value to getting her company name out there for those persons questioning their dating habits. While in this case we went the organic positioning route, the theory is the same.
Once you have the list of keywords that you believe pair up well with branding- and engagement-level customer communications, you have two choices.
So, to algorithmically determine which behaviors to include in your brand-lift calculations, take a step back and review your site. Are all page views equally likely to educate consumers or prospects and increase the likelihood that they buy from you? Probably not. The question then becomes whether to optimize around "stickiness" equally across all pages or provide additional value to page impressions that occur within certain areas of your site. Looking at the page views most closely associated with current measured conversions is a great place to start since those buyers who converted may share some needs with those who have not yet converted but might be willing and able to do so later. On the other hand, those early in the decision-making process may have very different needs. Only you can decide. Some people call the behaviors on your site that telegraph interest "micro conversions," but I like to think about those behaviors as ones that correlate to you delivering influence to the searcher or visitor.
When your management has bought into the importance of factoring in branding, micro conversions, or influence, you'll have a new way to ask for the increased search and online marketing budgets you deserve.
This column was originally published on March 18, 2011.
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