Branding as a Direct Response PPC Search Byproduct

This week I was honored to attend an RBC Capital Markets Internet executive dinner at the 21 Club in New York City. There, a dozen or so executives were joined by about 50 analysts. While providing an outlook on PPC (define) search and Google, I commented several times that our clients and those of other SEM (define) agencies manage search to direct-response metrics, which often becomes the binding constraint to spending. In fact, SEMPO’s annual research confirms that marketers primarily manage to direct-response metrics.

Wenda Harris Millard, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia’s president, and I got into a fun debate about whether, by emphasizing direct response (DR) metrics when discussing how clients manage search, I was misleading investors and ignoring the branding impact that many marketers also derive from search. Millard contends that branding and direct response are completely separate disciplines. I argued that because marketers overwhelmingly manage search to DR metrics but can get a brand lift while engaging in DR messaging, the two weren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, marketers and advertisers all want brand impact, and why not? The classical definition of branding includes the ability to charge more for one’s product and have a loyal customer base due to one’s brand.

As with many debates, we can both be right. Recently, executive summary data from SEMPO’s “2007 State of the Market Survey” were released to the membership, sponsors, and press at SES New York. Advertisers consistently indicated that brand awareness is the top objective of paid placement search campaigns. This is particularly true for larger firms. When asked, “What is your company using search engine marketing to accomplish?” 71 percent of advertisers with more than 500 employees answered, “To increase/enhance brand awareness of our products/services.” Smaller advertisers shared their enthusiasm for branding, with 56 percent of those advertisers with fewer than 500 employees selecting brand awareness as a purpose of their paid search efforts.

Yet when asked, “What metrics do you track/measure/generally pay attention [to] to gauge the success of Search Engine Marketing programs?” brand impact was the lowest of 13 different metrics, at 16 percent of advertisers. The top metrics used were: traffic, conversion rate, CTR (define), ROI (define), and CPC (define), which were all selected by 50 percent or more of 338 advertiser respondents. The gap between the most important reason for doing search and the least is a testament to the difficulties of measuring brand impact. Branding metrics used by larger marketers with the budgets to measure attitudinal metrics are typically brand and ad awareness (aided and unaided), message association, brand favorability, and purchase intent.

My hypothesis is this: When managing a lean-forward media such as search, one in which consumers look to become engaged in links from the SERP (define) to the rich content available on marketer sites, one can achieve tremendous branding on the post-click engagement while selecting clicks based on predictive DR metrics. In other words, branding metrics can be considered a byproduct of a best-practices DR search campaign, even if one does not go so far as to develop a branding effectiveness index (BEI) formula. Such correlative metrics include:

  • Brand and ad awareness. What generates the maximum lift in brand awareness: the ad or the engagement that occurs after the click? When allocating dollars across a campaign, should engagement metrics (page views or time on site) be used? Should DR metrics be included as well to make a campaign holistic? I’ll put this on the research project to-do list to attempt to correlate post-click brand awareness lift to DR metrics, not just a BEI or stickiness metric.

  • Message association. Associating one’s brand with a keyword is powerful. Consumers expect to see a brand in the SERP when that brand relates to the keyword. Failure to be in the organic results, paid search results, or both can erode the consumer’s association of that brand as a leader in its category. After a consumer clicks, it’s up to the landing page to reinforce the keyword and brand association.
  • Brand favorability. Consumers go through a buying cycle from awareness through consideration and finally purchase. Depending on the category, the Internet, and search in particular, may play a critical role in shaping favorable opinions of the brand, moving that brand into the consideration set. Both appearance in a SERP and the subsequent site visit when a click occurs are important. Marketers must think beyond pure DR mode when crafting their landing pages and text link copy, but DR copy generally has a higher quality score, reducing CPC costs in Google. Messages and copy should build brand favorability and stimulate CTR in PPC search.
  • Purchase intent. This is where branding and DR intersect. When you can find keywords, engines, geos, and times of day that already index high on purchase intent, it’s the search marketer’s objective to guide, nudge, or coerce the consumer over the hump. If the consumer hasn’t completely built a critical mass of purchase intent, the marketer must use all the tools at her disposal to build that purchase intent to critical mass.

Once my brand-lift correlation research is done, I’ll know for sure if one can optimize on DR metrics and get branding as a byproduct optimally as opposed to having to use different media messaging and, as Millard would put it, apply a whole different marketing discipline to optimally build brand.

Join us for SES Search Engine Marketing Training Workshops on May 6, 2008, at the Crowne Plaza Denver in Colorado.

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