Dragging Search Above the Line (by the Scruff of Its Neck)

A few months ago, Jupiter Research fielded an extensivebiannual survey of online advertisers who use search. We asked respondents what their search campaign goals were. Almost half (46 percent) listed “branding” as a goal.

Our first thought was, “Hey, that’s great! Search is beginning to be viewed as more than just another direct marketing tactic. It’s seen as real advertising. It’s ’above the line,’ as the cool agency-types say.” Then we looked at what respondents measure. Only 20 percent measure any kind of brand impact. Compare that with the 70 percent who measure clicks.

Advertisers seem to be saying, “It’s great that branding happens in search, but we’re too focused on direct commerce to spend any real time on it.”

And that’s too bad. Real brand-builder categories, such as consumer packaged goods (CPG), automotive,and entertainment, are missing a key opportunity to connect with customers at a critical point of need.

Determining Value

Once again, it seems the early proponents of Internet advertising have painted themselves into a corner by touting the inherent measurability of the medium. For display advertising, it’s an old story: As you could measure every impression and click, advertisers were told they would finally have an accurate idea of how well their campaigns were performing.

Boy, it took forever to get out of that one.

With search, the same concepts are being presented with two juicy, added twists: You can set the price that’s right for you; and you need only pay when someone clicks. This is all great, because you can set the price of an ad directly to the value that’s created by the click.

This is wonderful for commerce sites, of course. The core element of click value is built directly into the transaction: the cost of the product itself. Couple that with conversion rate, and most managers can estimate click value without a lot of effort. They know spending one dollar will get two, in the long run. Very measurable.

What if the conversion isn’t a sale, but reading a spec sheet? Or playing a game? Or watching a preview? What’s the value of that? Welcome back to the vaguely measurable world of brand advertising. Without a clear value in mind, it’s difficult to pick a number to bid. Harder still to optimize. If search is going to have much life beyond direct selling, brand managers will need tools to determine click value.

Comparative Media

Valuing a click’s brand impact must, in the end, be a measure of the degree to which the click drives a purchase as well as thepurchase’s ultimate value. With pure branding efforts, the only real way to do this is to ask consumers.

Take an automotive consumer who comes to a site but converts offline. Most auto manufactures run display advertising of some kind, usually banners and rich media. The manufacturer knows how much it pays for each click, at least from historical data (total campaign CPMs divided by clicks).

While the campaign is running, the advertiser must do two things. First, bid on at least some good keywords or keyword phrases (e.g., “family car,” “SUV,” “hemi”). Determine the bid cost based solely on competition. That is, bid the amount that gets you near the top.

Next, work with an analytics company. It can track who came to the site via a display ad and who came via search. Measure everything you can about behavior, and (if you can) pop up a questionnaire as they leave the site: “Based on what you just saw, how likely are you to buy a car from us? Is this more or less than before you visited our site?”

Then, take all this data, particularly questionnaire answers and the ad-placement costs, and put them side by side. My guess is search is going to win in a number of cases. By “win,” I mean costs less and converts more.

Beyond the Basics

Terms such as “family car” are good because someone would actually type them into a search engine. But that’s only the most basic branding. “Family car” describes the product but isn’t that interesting to brand managers in the long run. “Dependable” and “safe” are better, but people don’t really search on them.

The ultimate for brand builders will never get any searches: “A car that makes me feel strong and reliable to my family but still preserves my youthful attitude” is probably never searched.

Brand marketers must return to the original playbook and generate associations between their products and people, places, and things that also embody the desire and are actually searches someone would perform. If we focus on the real keywords in the query above, we find “strong,” “reliable,”and “youthful.” If the brand can find something that speaks to those same attributes, it can develop unique content around it, then bid on keywords around that.

Branding is about building connections between abstract, valuable ideas and consumable goods. Search is about words, a primary way to express ideas. Branders who ignore this channel because they think it’s not right for them really miss the point.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

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