B2B Search: Playing the Odds

If you’re a business-to-business (B2B) marketer with an unlimited search marketing budget, this column isn’t for you. With an unlimited budget, there are no campaign management or optimization decisions. Simply write a blank check to Google, Overture, MSN, Business.com, and the rest of the pay-per-click (PPC) engines, or let your agency hand out blank insertion orders (IOs). Complete a full keyword expansion, build compelling titles and descriptions, and match them up to appropriate landing pages. Then, go wild and set all listings to the top.

As you’re still reading, let’s assume you don’t have an unlimited budget. Search campaign budgeting and optimization for B2B marketers can be tricky. Unlike e-commerce purchase behavior, B2B buying cycles aren’t as well defined and predictable, nor does a purchase ordinarily occur online. Several studies indicate the Web, and search behavior in particular, plays a major role in every stage of the B2B buying cycle, from early research to final vendor selection. Even decisions as to whom to send a request for proposal (RFP) are often driven by research that occurred online. That means search plays an important role in driving B2B deals and revenue.

An opaque buying cycle essentially turns a B2B search marketer into a slot machine junkie. Each keyword listing seems like it will bring in the big payout, the million-dollar customer, the $100,000 deal. A dime here, $0.40 there, $8 for the expensive terms, Google and Overture listings drive traffic on appropriate keywords that seem relevant and have a chance of turning into a sale.

When stakes are high and contracts worth tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, fear can permeate the marketing department. The opacity of the sales cycle fuels a spending spree, and the department spends like drunken sailors, not wanting to miss an opportunity to capture a prospect’s attention, generate a lead, and, eventually, close a sale. This keyword gambling is the only thing the marketer knows. Budgets keep growing. No one knows for sure exactly how search marketing drives sales.

Sales are up. But where’s this new revenue coming from?

The good news is, unlike slot machines, keywords and the traffic they generate have very different odds of turning into a sale. With search engine marketing (SEM), there are ways to tilt the odds in your favor. That’s how to bring your budget back in line with available funds and lessen the chances the big one will get away. Is it possible keywords with lower odds, even the very worst ones, could turn into sales? Sure, the same way some consumer campaign listings generate sales but at a poor return on investment (ROI).

The problem becomes how to create a plan that maximizes likely revenue and long-term profit from the campaign. Best-case scenario: You make the buying cycle transparent. Track the prospect for campaign optimization and strategy development as early as the prospect’s first visit to the site and continue through to the sale. By closing the loop for all touch points, from initial contract to sale, the marketing and sales teams know what media contributes to sales and ensures campaigns are tuned for efficiency.

Many B2B marketers don’t have the technology infrastructure to tag and identify prospects at every step of the sales process. But don’t wait for the ultimate analytics, CRM, or SFA system for a fully transparent sales and marketing process. There are many simple ways marketers can optimize campaigns and spend a fixed budget to drive revenue efficiently.

Web and phone data can be shared with the providers or the marketing department. Even anecdotal evidence can facilitate development of a campaign strategy that ties site behavior to eventual sales.

Data helps identify high-odds keywords in an opaque sales cycle by making the buying process more transparent. To identify high-value, high-odds keywords in a large campaign, step back. Look at your site from prospects’ perspective. What actions will they take? What links will they click? How long will they stay on the site? Will they register? Will they call you? Is your call to action compelling? Will they look at “dealer locator” or “contact us” pages?

Once you’ve identified the behaviors, use a combination of data and intuition (yes, good old-fashioned smarts) to assign relative values to these behaviors based on how likely they are to be hot prospects. When you understand the relative value, you can optimize the campaign around keywords good at generating the high-value behaviors.

Once you know the value of touch points related to the buying cycle, you can use campaign automation technology, a competent account team, or both to take any size budget, from a couple of thousand to half a million dollars, and spend it efficiently with search engines, regardless of whether listings are paid placement, paid inclusion, or portal sponsorships.

This optimization strategy even works for non-search media. But who buys that anymore?

Want more search information? ClickZ Search Archives contains all our search columns, organized by topic.

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