Build Brand Equity for Search

I was talking with a friend who wants to refinance her home mortgage. Her current rate is sky-high. She’s eager to lower it and complete the deal by month’s end.

She’s ready, willing, and able to sign papers and pay closing costs. In short, my friend is every marketer’s definition of a qualified lead.

She wants to move quickly and is using search to find a vendor.

As she recounted her experience, I was struck by the implications of her story. My friend had conducted a number searches but hadn’t clicked on a single result. She didn’t recognized any of the companies returned by the search. She was dismayed by so many undifferentiated choices.

“I searched for ‘mortgage refinance’ and ‘mortgage rates,’ but most of the [search] ads [and results] were from companies like www.refi-your-home-mortgage.com and low-rate-home-mortgage-right-now.com,” she complained. (Note: Domain names have been changed so as not to offend anyone.)

“I’ve never heard of those companies, so I didn’t even click!”

“Would you have clicked on a link if it were a company you’d heard of before?” I asked.

“Absolutely. Of course,” came the reply.

People do business with companies they know and trust. If a customer knows and trusts you, she’s more likely to click your search result listing and more likely to do business with you.

I contacted Nick Nyhan, president of Dynamic Logic. His firm is perhaps best know for measuring the ability of online ad campaigns to communicate and build brand, even when no one clicks on the ad. Dynamic Logic helps companies analyze their marketing effectiveness by measuring the impact of their advertising campaigns on a brands level of awareness, message, and favorability using a number of instruments it’s developed.

I was interested in Nyhan’s perspective on the relationship between branding and search advertising.

“Branding and direct response are integrally related, but often they’re sold against each other,” Nyhan pointed out.

He explained search engine marketers are notorious for their direct-marketing focus: conversion and outcome. I asked why there isn’t any research into the branding impact of search engine advertising.

“We haven’t done any search engine advertising testing [studies] because search advertising has [historically] been measured by direct-response metrics,” Nyhan said. “They measure conversion. They haven’t taken the time to do the research on what happened to the people who saw the offer but didn’t click on it. Most of the people buying search [advertising] are buying clicks, so they haven’t measured the brand at all.”

Some online marketers forget branding’s importance as a search engine marketing (SEM) component. When they regard search advertising as direct-response marketing (as they often regard all online marketing — so much can be measured), they believe they save money by paying only for conversions. They don’t realize how much greater click-through and conversion rates would be if their brands were recognized and trusted by that same search audience.

Search marketers overlook the fact even direct-response advertisers who hawk wares on late-night infomercials understand branding and the power of positive brand associations and brand favorability on conversion.

In his book, “Millionaire’s Notebook,” Steven Scott, an infomercial pioneer and founder of American Telecast Corporation (ATC), discusses how a celebrity spokesperson impacts conversion. When his company invested in a 30-minute TV spot for a product no one had heard of, it required a celebrity’s halo effect for credibility and to make the ad pay off.

Celebrities, movie stars, and, in one case, a retired senator, spend years developing their relationship and trust with a mass TV audience. They’re known and trusted by the audience. Surely, if a celebrity endorses a product, it must be credible. Scott’s recruited celebrities including Cher, Priscilla Presley, and even Richard Simmons to increase infomercial conversion rates.

Yet too many search marketers believe simply being in front of a motivated buyer at the moment they’re making a buying decision is enough to help them achieve success. As my mortgage-seeking friend demonstrated, that’s often not enough.

Many search marketers believe they can pop in front of a qualified shopper, screaming, “Offer! Offer!” A wiser strategy may be, “Brand, brand, brand, offer!”

Nyhan explained traditional advertisers know they must brand before they offer. “I think that smart marketers will realize that if they have to have four impressions with a target audience member to ensure the greatest success. If they do brand, brand, brand, offer, they’ll have greater success than if they simply make offer after offer.”

Branding occurs every time your brand is placed in the path of prospective customers, preferably when they’re somewhere along the buying cycle.

“You cannot expect a lot of people to come to your Web site in order to be sold,” Nyhan said. “You have to sell to them around the periphery of life.” He suggests selling in a number of media: print, outdoor, and TV, not just online.

Ever notice how the number of people who query your brand name increases immediately after you send direct email? How many more search click-throughs your site receives during, and immediately after, a banner ad campaign? I have. Most marketers measure even those campaigns as though a click on the banner or email is the only outcome. Often, these online marketing activities increase brand awareness and spur additional search queries for branded terms.

Evidence of brand lift? Definitely.

According to Nyhan, if a prospective customer hasn’t heard of you until she’s ready to make a purchase, you’re not perceived as very different from your competitor. You’re probably already losing.

In a recent interview/case study with HomeClick’s director of online marketing, Jeremy Dalnes, I asked how he’d continue to grow his business using only search. Dalnes replied, “The key to growing is to constantly buy more keywords. The answer is not spending big bucks on a handful of large traffic generating words, but rather spending the time to identify new keywords that convert.”

Sooner or later, you’ll run out of new keywords. So have you hit a wall?

If you can increase brand awareness, recognition, favorability, and favorable brand associations, you may be able to increase the quantity of click-throughs from the existing set of natural listings and paid keyword ads.

It’s done in a variety of ways: participating in trade-shows, print ads, banner campaigns, outdoor, PR, even direct mail. Reach your audience several times. Allow them to get to know you before you present an offer.

I’m not suggesting a search-centric strategy is a mistake (that would be pretty insane, given the business I’m in). Rather, your search ad campaign will improve as you increase your brand’s awareness and favorability.

Marketers running out of new converting keywords are well advised to measure brand awareness and favorability. Then, work to improve these metrics to reach the next level.

There was a time in your life when you’d never heard of General Motors or IBM. If you searched for a laptop computer, would you be more likely to click the IBM ThinkPad listing, or the www.yo-yo-yo-joey-bag-a-donuts-laptop-computer.com link?

If you’ve had success using branding to improve click through on search ads, I want to hear from you. Write to me. I may feature your story in a future column.

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