Start Taking Search Seriously

Paid search is a proven winner, yet some marketers don’t take advantage of its full potential. Here’s why you need to put SEM at the heart of your marketing strategy.

Search engine marketing isn’t a perfect marketing medium. But compared to every “innovative” marketing methodology that’s come along in the past five years, search is a hands-down winner. This is why Google has become a multi-billion dollar powerhouse and why hundreds of marketers are reaping ROI, increased market share and branding benefits from being active participants in search.

The reasons SEM has taken off are both elementary and revolutionary. As a marketing channel, it offers the following strengths: 

  1. Paid search campaigns happen in real-time, making it possible for marketers to obtain almost instantaneous marketing ROI. Search’s real-time nature provides for the ongoing fine-tuning of all variables in the campaign in a continuous process of optimization, which means that marketers can learn and improve their campaigns over time.
  2. Paid search advertising is by its very nature the most unobtrusive way of getting the word out about one’s product, service or brand. Instead of pushing a messages in the face of an uninterested and possibly unwilling audience, SEM is a low-key “pull medium,” responsive to the user’s intention to engage. Therefore, calls to action are more likely to be heeded because users perceive them to be relevant to their intent.
  3. The data generated by paid search campaigns can have enormous value to marketers, in terms of providing business intelligence, extending CRM efforts and scouting out audience segments that may have been neglected by existing marketing plans. Given that search behavior is highly responsive to non-search marketing efforts (both on- and offline), such data can provide a reliable indication of the effectiveness of all other marketing efforts.
  4. Paid search is still a relatively inexpensive medium and search campaigns can be dynamically scaled up or down to accommodate varying needs. Applying targeting and segmentation technologies can dramatically reduce (although not completely eliminate) the problem of non-converting clicks.

Unfortunately, each one of these strengths comes with major caveats. The fact that search happens in real-time provides both opportunity and risk. Minor campaign errors can quickly result in significant financial losses unless they are quickly corrected, so the onus is on the marketer to continually monitor search campaigns to ensure peak performance.

The mere fact that search provides the ability to systematically test campaign elements doesn’t ensure that such steps will be taken. Nor do many marketers actually use the rich data from search to inform their non-search marketing efforts. Teams can be overloaded with data, and many function in departmental isolation where they are insulated from high-level marketing strategy conversations.

Finally, while paid search is inexpensive relative to other media, media management costs are proportionally higher. Unlike other channels where the media is expensive (such as television) but media management costs are low (because the media is easy to buy), search presents the exact converse. The media (keywords) are cheap but the costs of managing campaigns may be significant — especially for sophisticated search campaigns.

Given these difficult issues, many marketers choose to simply outsource some or all of the search campaign process to an outside agency, either one that already handles their online media buying or a specialized search shop that does nothing else but search. In my view, there are definite risks with going the big agency route, because big agencies rarely have access to the sophisticated technology required to deliver top-performing search campaigns. Nor does their economic model (which depends on marking up media bought in big chunks such as radio/TV buys) favor intensive work on search. You can’t really blame big agencies for regarding search this way, because it’s only natural for agencies to focus their efforts on media buying opportunities where the profit potential is greatest.

Specialized SEM agencies provide an alternative to the big agency route, but once again, marketers need to exercise care before committing their search budgets to such organizations. Many SEM agencies are new and don’t have more than a few years of operating experience behind them. While many promise to deliver unparalleled campaign results using “proprietary” technology, the fact is that many of them license the same off-the-shelf campaign management tools used by the big agencies, limiting their ability to provide truly customized solutions.

As there are no industry benchmarks for evaluating such agencies, a good selection rule is to look at the agency’s client list, seek out positive, unbiased testimonials from those who have used them in the past and, perhaps most importantly, examine how much their existing clients have grown since the agency took over their accounts.

However the work gets done, marketers need to understand that search isn’t just another marketing channel, but a fundamental organizing method by which users and marketers can find each other in the terabytes of data constituting the digital world. While it’s attractive to think that search can just be bolted onto existing media plans, it is far better to regard search as an integral element at the heart of the marketing strategy, because the demand that you drive through your media efforts is all harvested in the search process.


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