SEM’s Reach and Frequency

SEM (define) is making its way into media plans. That’s a great thing, but media plans often rely on reach and frequency as primary metrics. At conferences and meetings, I’ve been hearing an unusual set of questions about using PPC (define) SEM to obtain reach or add reach to a media plan.

Today, I’ll explore how marketers can achieve the same objectives that reach and frequency accomplish in a media plan by intelligently using PPC search. I’ll introduce the concepts of visibility and coverage as better proxies for reach and frequency within search.

If you’re trying to use reach and frequency as campaign objectives for Google, Yahoo, and MSN search campaigns, you may be doing yourself a disservice. Though brand marketers are discovering PPC search, search is a sufficiently different to warrant a customized approach. Old media and traditional interactive media buying metrics such as reach and frequency are a poor choice for SEM campaign objectives.

Attempts to apply reach and frequency incorrectly to search marketing campaigns will likely result in disappointed marketers and agencies due to the unique elements governing how searchers interact with SERPs (define). Similarly, frequency as used in media buying doesn’t survive the transition to SEM very well. Search engines (with the exception of Yahoo, until Panama launches fully in Q1 07) optimize ad positions based on relevance and revenue, taking both bid and predicted CTR (define) into account. After all, if fewer people click in a CPC (define) marketplace, the engines make less money. If you try to buy position with an ad that doesn’t encourage clicks or that isn’t well targeted for the keywords in your AdGroup, the engines will drop that ad down in the listings, require a dramatically higher CPC, or disable the ad entirely.

Before you apply reach and frequency to search, remember that searchers are different from other media consumers. Searchers don’t follow a predetermined path of query behavior that would allow marketers to apply frequency models. The searcher may be driven to the search box through multiple exposures to on- and offline advertising. This makes it futile to build one search interaction model that relies on frequency.

It’s useful to understand some searchers in -market for your products or services may perform 4 to 12 searches before making a final decision. Post-click site interaction or even high visibility at each stage of the search funnel may influence the likelihood of future ad selection (clicks) as the funnel narrows.

Unfortunately, the exact combination of searches is highly unpredictable. Some searchers immediately jump from a generic search to a brand search based on information they gather within early SERPs or from links within those SERPs. Others continue to search on generic keywords throughout the purchase decision process.

The metrics analogous to reach and frequency in search might be called “visibility” and “coverage.” Visibility is driven by a combination of position and well-written ad creative (tuned to the keywords being searched on). All the eye-tracking studies on SERPs indicate a high concentration of attention at the top left of the SERP as well as scanning behavior that shows searchers are more likely to lock in on the paid and organic listings that contain the keywords searched.

This data is confirmed in the CTR data, meaning visibility correlates with CTR. Since the level of communication with consumers multiplies dramatically once the consumer arrives at your site, getting the clicks remains important. Think you’re getting a great deal when you see a lot of impressions in a Google, Yahoo, or MSN report and a low CTR (not many billed clicks) and low positions? You aren’t. You’re showing up on SERPS in locations where the vast majority of searchers completely ignore your listings.

Coverage, a proxy for frequency, is essentially having the keyword list sufficiently expanded and the right mix of broad, phrase, and exact match listings to improve the chances that when your target customer is in market, you’re ubiquitous. Frequency is only counted when a person actually sees your ad. Similarly, coverage is only truly effective when the average positions are high.

Maybe you were hoping you could get away with lower positions and still achieve the same objectives that reach and frequency are designed to achieve in traditional media planning. Unfortunately, to engage customers at every stage of their buying process and influence eventual sales, you must work on achieving position when it matters.

Many of my clients’ campaigns have benefited from applying segmentation models to the search audience. Regardless of whether you have a fixed budget or are willing to spend as long as objectives are met, it’s always better to maximize the overall success a campaign can deliver instead of fooling yourself into thinking impressions at low positions with few clicks are yielding a branding impact. Nothing brands better than your site, but to get people there you need visibility and coverage.

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

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