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The secret to paid search: treat it like a media buy

The secret to paid search: treat it like a media buy Michael Hubbard

There's no question that search has earned its reputation as a pillar of online marketing. Its effectiveness has been proven over the years. But search is only one avenue of the online marketing mix and involves similar strategic planning as would any other media buy. Everything we do with media buying translates into search, and the same philosophies apply to both practices.

Approach search like a media buy
Selecting and purchasing keywords is a media buy itself; each keyword and its associated ad is a "media placement." Agencies and search specialists analyze and recommend keywords based on internet user behavior trends (frequency and diversity of keyword phrases), including target market and demographics.

So instead of creating a separate search budget, include search as part of the media budget and benchmark it accordingly. Develop goals and objectives, identify your target markets and research and set the appropriate budget. Your recommendations should be based on potential keyword query volume, number of keywords, location targeting requirements, overall campaign goals, etc. Once you've set a budget, select the appropriate "publisher" (i.e. search engine) by establishing the best fit for your campaigns. Options are expanding these days, but possible publishers include Google AdWords, Yahoo! Search Marketing, MSN AdCenter, AOL Search, Ask.com, Looksmart and a growing number of vertical search engines.

Here's an example of the process in real life: For one of our clients in the healthcare field, we developed a search campaign with very specific conversion goals. To start, we researched potential "placements" (i.e. keywords) by using client website content and metadata analysis along with third party research tools like spyfu.com, Google Trends and Wordtracker. We then conducted competitive research using spyfu.com and manual searches using target/primary keywords. This helps gauge the landscape competitiveness and provides insight into funds required to ensure success. Based on estimated cost and budget associated with each placement, the recommendation was to only run on Google nationally between 6:00 am and 11:00 pm for maximum budget effectiveness.

Support search like a media buy
Simply put, you can get more clicks on keywords when there is more media going out into the world to drive those clicks. Several, if not all, other media channels support search campaigns and have the potential to significantly increase clickthroughs and conversions. And the beauty of that is, they have ROI objectives of their own, so the benefit is always two-fold.

Display can be a major boost to search because it not only delivers clicks, it delivers qualified clicks. Dedicate budget to display advertising to support the search programs, sending more qualified buyers to the search engines. Demographic, geographic and behaviorally targeted ad buys and more brand-based placements reach shoppers with the most potential to buy from you.

Sponsoring keywords in web-based mail can drive traffic to search engines, as can print and broadcast marketing efforts. The important thing is to provide closed-loop communication between your SEM and traditional agency teams to ensure ad message and brand consistency. Identify day-parting opportunities to ensure your PPC ads appear in top positions during and after a print placement or broadcast spots. 

In our healthcare campaign, as the search campaign was launched, we simultaneously deployed display campaigns that kept messaging, offers and landing pages consistent in both channels. The company's radio and TV ad schedules were adjusted so that as those spots hit the air, our SEM team increased bids for both brand and our top non-brand keywords with top performing ads to coincide with that traffic. Web analytics reports helped to identify those spikes in search traffic during and after traditional media spots.

Optimize search like a media buy
Optimization of any campaign is vital to getting the best return possible, but SEM is often an entirely different process from other media. But it doesn't have to be. The same basic concepts still apply. To test overall campaign performance, establish control groups and set benchmarks against cost-per lead, cost-per-sale, or cost-per-acquisition targets. Put more budget behind keywords that prove successful, and eliminate underperforming keywords. As a bonus, search helps test the campaign's message strength and apply the most effective message to the corresponding display ads and landing pages.

Once our client's campaign had received a significant amount of traffic, we tested some general keywords, but we saw too much volatility in their performance, with the performance mostly trending down, so just like a display publisher, we disabled these underperforming "placements" and shifted budget over to better performers. We constantly sought out additional opportunities to garner visibility and traffic. This optimization strategy resulted in a conversion rate increase of 20 percent.

Marketing channels are never best leveraged in a silo. Specialization certainly has its benefits, but in the end, each channel requires a media buy and the big-picture analysis that goes along with it. Approaching search like a media buy helps increase your brand awareness while delivering ROI via leveraging your other online media buys. By supporting and optimizing search in this way, you may can end up with increased conversions and drive brand name searches up even when the industry search trends are flat.

Michael Hubbard is the CEO of Media Two Interactive.

Michael Hubbard founded Media Two Interactive in 1998, and he currently acts as media director and CEO. In these roles, he drives the continuing growth of the agency not only by overseeing the management team, but also by serving as a mentor to...

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