Microsites and SEM: A Proof of Concept

I’ve talked about landing-page testing and optimization for years. One thing I hear repeatedly is marketers can’t get their sites built the way they want them for an optimal pay-per-click (PPC) campaign.

Marketers are smart. They know a poor brick-and-mortar storefront turns off people walking or driving by. A catalog merchant knows the importance of a good cover. Likewise, marketers know a good site experience is integral to the success of a PPC campaign.

If you feel your site is getting stale and it isn’t the best place to send traffic, or there’s simply room for improvement, you’re probably right. Perhaps it’s time to consider a microsite or a minisite.

A microsite is a completely autonomous user environment. It could be as brief as a single page (although that might simply be a new landing page) or a new page with new navigation, an offer, and a link or two back to your main site. Alternately, it could be a fully functional minisite with a privacy policy, contact page, and perhaps an e-commerce engine.

If you’re spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on PPC search every month, it doesn’t take much of an efficiency lift to recoup $5,000-10,000 spent on developing a micro- or minisite. If the conversion rate on PPC search traffic increases 50 percent, your overall lead or order volume also grows 50 percent, all other things being equal.

But not all other things are equal. Gains in conversion from a new microsite mean, given your return on investment (ROI) objectives, you can afford to pay 50 percent more for clicks from your keywords. What positions could you afford if your ability to bid increased 50 percent? My guess is you probably have some important power keywords that could deliver dramatic volumes when empowered by an efficiency lift delivered through the microsite.

A microsite can be used for power keyword segments of a search engine marketing (SEM) campaign, the entire PPC campaign, even for a campaign segment you couldn’t have executed without it. For example, Jens Thraenhart, director of Internet strategy at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, recently shared his observation that microsites are a great tool to target niche audiences that wouldn’t have responded to content on existing sites.

Several Fairmont hotels are perfectly suited to catering to the needs of golf and spa enthusiasts. Yet the existing site’s messaging and content aren’t as strong as they could be in respect to the lucrative golf and spa categories. Fairmont’s new microsites have the content and message tuned to the appropriate niche. They’ve sped up editorial approval in the engines and delivered conversion rates that resulted in profitable campaigns.

As with landing-page testing, we’ve seen lift in conversion rates and ROI for microsites and minisites at levels approaching 200 percent. Of course, the lift for your particular site depends on where you start and how customized you get.

If you think you might benefit from a microsite and have budget allocated for development, consider the following when planning and executing:

  • What’s the message (big picture, scope of content)?

  • Is the content for a simple or complex decision?
  • What’s the site’s wireframe, and how is the site structured?
  • Will the microsite sit on your current domain or a new one? Considering a secondary domain may make more sense if the microsite showcases a product or service not normally associated with your brand. Conversely, branded URLs are often an asset in creating click-through. But if the reasons for a microsite include IT or design resource constraints, an external site maybe the more logical choice. You can have your existing domain and host the site remotely, if your IT department cooperates a little. For example, ww1.domain.com or offers.domain.com can retain a branded URL yet host the site separately.
  • Should your interactive agency design and host the site?
  • How much navigation resides on the site, and how many choices does a visitor get?
  • Will the microsite design be consistent with existing corporate communications or a departure from that look?
  • How prominent is your brand/logo on the site?
  • Consider: color, background colors, fonts, animated vs. static, rich media vs. traditional.
  • Will the microsite link to any pages on the main site?
  • What’s the primary call to action?
  • What are secondary calls to action?
  • Will any call-to-action messages be for offline activity (store visits, phone calls)?
  • Will your microsite be developed for SEO (define) purposes and linked into your existing hierarchy, or is it exclusively for PPC traffic conversion with no thought to search engine-friendly layout, design, HTML, or content?
  • Do you want the microsite built in different design or layout versions to allow you to test one microsite against another?
  • Will the microsite accommodate dynamic inclusion of different copy or headline based on the user’s search query before clicking your PPC search link?

If you’re already committed to a microsite strategy, take the additional time to turn the project into a sophisticated testing and optimization platform from which to test and improve all aspects of the user experience. Many of the questions above could be answered in more than one way. That means the “right way” may not be your first choice. Darwinian or sophisticated multivariate testing is often easier to execute in a microsite environment.

Once your microsite is ready, treat it like a new campaign. Test keywords, engines, price, position, and creative.

Go forth and build microsites. At best, they’ll vastly outperform your existing site. At worst, they’ll prove your current site works. Given the modest investment, it’s a win-win scenario.

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

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