Overshadowing LookSmart’s recent release of its new auction-based pay-for-placement offering was the announcement on Monday detailing the loss of its MSN listing syndication. Of course, the Sponsored Listing product announcement did not mention MSN syndication, which was a pretty good indicator that something big was about to happen.
This is just another day in search marketing. One company drops another’s listings making it more confusing for advertisers to figure out where their paid listing money should be spent. A barrage of questions initiated by hype has once again overtaken search marketing. As always, true believers, I stand ready to help.
Sure, LookSmart is going to lose some traffic. Yes, this is a dismal announcement that plunged LookSmart stock into the depths with Luca Brazzi. No, the site is not yet ready to sleep with the fishes and this could actually be very positive news for advertisers. Here’s why.
Tears of Joy
Monday morning, I got a letter from Jason Kellerman, LookSmart’s Chief Executive, delivering the MSN LookListing product bad news. After mid January, listings would no longer be carried by MSN. Kellerman did offer a link to the Sponsored Listings rising star. This move precipitated at least one really big question.
If MSN represented close to 65% of LookSmart’s revenue, why would LookSmart introduce a bid-for-placement product that was bound to ruffle some feathers at MSN?
If you buy into (bad pun) a story that appeared in Business Week on October 6th that inferred some pretty serious allegations against paid inclusion providers like LookSmart and Inktomi, the inclusion model was heading down for the dirt nap anyway. Business Week’s probe suggested that paid inclusion listings were sneaked into results amid the unbiased (who are we kidding) spidered results and obvious (that would be sponsored) advertiser links. The report also suggested that sites that did not advertise in paid inclusion might have been deliberately removed. Was that wrong?
So, if the redundancy nightmare didn’t get LookSmart (or inclusion syndication as a whole) it appears consumer activist Boogie Man would have. This inevitable fate of inclusion makes the Sponsored Link program a stroke of necessitated mother of invention genius.
The Business Week report is the kind of journalism that usually sends me off on a rant, so I must submit a question to the publication. Why pick on inclusion providers? In my years of working in search marketing, I have witnessed some pretty shady business practices all over. From launching my client’s search program only to target said client’s biggest competitor for bids the next day to offering my clients a cheaper presence for the same inventory with a direct relationship, clearly there is enough mud. So if you are going to sling it, sling it on more deserving targets.
The Golden Calf
The world awaits release of Microsoft’s much-hyped yet unseen operating system, Longhorn. In many a press release and “accidentally” leaked sneak peak, Bill Gates and company promise a totally revamped OS built on a new file system that gives users a single route to data, regardless of how that data is created or where on a PC or network it's stored. A fair assumption about Longhorn functionality would be that it includes searching the Web.
Though MSN representatives have indicated a desire to build a better model, search decision makers are standing by their commitment to user experience and search marketing efficiency statements when questions are posed about the next big predicted partner drop, Overture. Since Yahoo!’s proposed purchase of the paid search syndicator in July (a move that was recently completed) the Overture listings that appear within MSN search results would seem to be a competitive conflict. Removing Overture listings now seems inevitable, but who is to say those listings can’t be provided by another listing syndicator while we wait for Bill’s next OS opus.
Save the Swan Song for Later
As for LookSmart, at least one employee I spoke with sounded off with a staunch survivalist attitude, “We have faced adversity before with changes in structure and partnerships. We did an about face and turned things around then, and we will do it again.” Now that’s moxie. I like it.
About the author: iMedia search marketing columnist, Kevin Ryan clearly needs to find himself a life. In addition to his weekly column, he actually spends his free time covering search news to bring you the latest and greatest information ad infinidum. Kevin is currently Director, Market Development at IPG’s Wahlstrom Interactive where he provides guidance in directional online marketing to Wahlstrom’s prestigious list of clients and sister agency brands.
Marcus: Can you give us a good example of conversational marketing?
Huba: One of the best conversational marketing programs is by Discovery Education, a division of Discovery Communications. (Note: we did help them with this program.) The division sells a product called unitedstreaming that teachers can use to download video clips to using in presentations and lesson plans. The division built a site called the "Discovery Educator Network" (DEN) that connects teachers around the country to use their product and other technology in the classroom.
The site contains blogs written by both Discovery employees and teachers, discussion boards, and a resource section where teachers can share PowerPoints and other helpful materials. Teachers who want to conduct local trainings can put their events on the event calendar. Discovery has seen usage and subscription renewals of the product go up after the DEN was started.
Battelle: Lenovo did it early (last Fall) with its "Black or Titanium" campaign. Dice did it with its "rant banner." Snap launched with a conversational campaign that invited authors and audiences to help them launch its new engine. Symantec, Microsoft and others have also done these kind of campaigns with us. For more, see our overview here.
Hespos: We've been working with AccuQuote for several months now, and they launched a campaign recently in which they asked their existing customers for feedback on their own customer service process in a thread on their blog. They let life insurance customers know about the thread by sending them an email. AccuQuote got a ton of comments, most of which were very constructive.
Here's the important part: they listened, and they then told their customers what they were doing with the feedback they got. They responded to every comment left in the thread, following up on individual customer cases. As a result, they wrote several dozen incremental policies, just by listening to their own customers.
We advise clients that the first step toward implementing an effective Conversational Marketing campaign is making a commitment to the conversation. If they're not prepared to do this, they shouldn't get involved in social media at all.
Look at it this way-- would you go to a cocktail party, mill around with the crowd and ignore anyone who tried to speak to you? No, you wouldn't. It would be rude. And that's a big reason why clients who can't commit to conversation should stay the heck away from blogs, community sites and social media.
Naples: Outside of our industry, I worked on some good ones in my D.C. days. There were many opponents to Affirmative Action in the early '90s. But, when the "Mend it Don't End it" campaign was in stride, nobody seemed to think it should disappear. What happened was that people began calling it "striving for diversity," and now it's expected in the workplace.
Within our industry, the conversational campaign that stands out is the one that PointRoll executed a few years back. They introduced FatBoy to much controversy, since the campaign seemed so insensitive. But, at the same time, they executed a smart byline effort with the users of their products being the ones singing its praises in the media. They knew their target so well, so they knew that the people who were using the tools, mostly young folks in the interactive arms of agencies, weren't going to be put off by the objectionable creative, they were going to laugh at it. The combination of these two created a buzz that helped move them from a fifth-ranked provider to the first ranked one.
Marcus: How about a bad example or something that could have been done better?
Naples: There are so many of these. It seems like every day that I get pitched for one or another. I don't want to call any of them out though. No need to make enemies.
Battelle: I can't think of one that comes to mind on FM sites, but there are certainly examples of this done with something of a tin ear. The Subway pitch comes to mind.
Huba: McDonald's has a corporate responsibility blog called "Open for Discussion". The company does deserve kudos for having a blog at all, but the blogger could be doing a better job at handling a recent issue that has surfaced. Environmental bloggers are criticizing the company for distributing 42 million Hummers as prizes in Happy Meals this summer in a marketing promotion with GM.
The McDonald's blogger has been very slow in approving comments on the blog that are critical on this issue. A recent post by the McDonald's blogger indicated that he is frustrated that more people are not commenting on the issue on his blog. He needs to realize that the dialogue is happening in the blogosphere and he should reach out and comment on the blogs that are being critical. The conversation doesn't always come to you; sometimes you have to go to where it's happening and jump in.
Hespos: Fake MySpace pages are a big drag. There are all these people out there connecting with one another in very human ways. They post messages back and forth, invite people into their social circles, engage in conversation-- basically they're living their social lives online. And then these brands come along and post pages for their mascots or their ad icons, and they think it's a success because people become "friends" with the icon. They say, "Ooh, look. A gazillion people 'friended' my ad icon. That proves that people identify with my brand." It's pathetic-- like those kids in high school who would compare how many people signed their yearbook as if it was some sort of validation that they were popular or something.
What these companies could be doing is empowering somebody at their organization to speak directly with the market. I know it's a scary concept because marketers think they have control over the marketing message. What they don't realize is that for communication to have credibility in this sphere, it needs to be a two-way dialogue between human beings, not a one-way message from a marketing department to a "target audience." When people within companies speak directly to the market, we recapture some of that "mom and pop-ness" we've lost over the years. Personally, I identify with brands that listen to me, demonstrate that my input is important and don't keep me at arm's length.
As far as things that could have been done better, I really identify with the idea behind Ford's Bold Moves campaign, but I think the execution could have been a lot better. They started a blog and I thought they were prepared to listen to the market and respond to reactions people had to what's on their blog. Instead, they simply comment on stories written about them in the mass media or on A-list blogs. They don't respond to the individual sports car enthusiast, for example, who shows up at their blog and wants to get involved in a discussion with someone at the company about why Ford can't seem to build a Corvette killer.
It's nice to acknowledge what's going on in the blogosphere, and that definitely is a step in the right direction. But I don't know that what Ford is doing is legitimately encouraging participatory dialogue. There are still a lot of people out there still being ignored.
Marcus: Some brands, big and small, are resistant to conversational marketing because it means that they lose partial control of the brand message. What advice would you give to these brands? Do you have any tactics or strategies that have worked for you?
Hespos: There are a few. We look for clients that can come to terms with the following without completely blowing a gasket:
- You've never been in control of the message because people are thinking human beings and they talk to one another.
- Conversations about your brand, product, category and customer service experience are going on every day without your input.
- It's best to participate in these conversations while you still have the opportunity to change people's minds.
Naples: I would point to my response to your first question and admonish them to always retain as much control as possible over their messaging and brand alliances. This is far more science than it is art, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either selling you something, doesn't know what they're doing or is lazy.
Huba: Brands have already lost control now that anyone can blog or podcast messages about them to a worldwide audience. Citizen marketers are publishing and broadcasting about brands they love and brand they hate today. And as more and more people, especially Millenials, adopt social media tools, the amount of multimedia word of mouth on the web is only going to increase. Smart companies are embracing and reaching out to these vocal constituents and establishing a dialogue with them.
Battelle: If you can't have an honest, passionate conversation about your brand and how it makes folks lives better, well, what's the point? The best brands are always built by word of mouth, right?
So what do I mean by this? There are so many ways to slice and dice the ad network landscape that it's almost mind numbing. Because there are new entries into the space everyday, it makes it almost impossible to figure out the differences and why they matter.
Representation, ad network or a hybrid?
So the main way of slicing the ad network space is to think about it in terms of what kind of business model they run.
There are the rep firms that merely represent the sites and sell inventory, such as Winstar and Gorilla Nation. They will sometimes have an exclusive arrangement to do this as the only seller of the inventory -- so the site doesn’t sell it at all -- or possibly as the only outside source to sell that inventory. And sometimes they will share the responsibility of selling the inventory with other rep firms. But in most cases, they will either sell the inventory exclusively or share that job only with the site.
These typically fall into the other two categories: pure and hybrid networks. They might represent some sites on a single site basis, but they also have the ability to target your ads in custom channels or throughout their whole network. It gets a little challenging to know where each network falls, so you must be very specific when talking to the networks as to what your options are and how they operate.
So now we know the basic categories networks can fall into. How do those categories further break down in terms of differentiating factors. Let’s start with pricing.
Pricing is the trickiest factor of them all in figuring out how the ad network (rep firm, ad network or hybrid network) operates. There are a few ways to compare pricing. They either have agreements set up with a publisher with tags in place for prime inventory, or they must go out and purchase that media once they have a deal with an advertiser; this is commonly known as arbitrage.
CPM vs. CPA (performance-based deals)
Most ad networks that will sell Clicks Per Action (CPA) deals are working on an arbitrage model. These will typically be your pure ad networks, such as Advertising.com and ValueClick. Once they have an agreement with an advertiser, they will then go out and purchase inventory, typically as cheaply as possible, to back into the ROI metrics agreed upon with the advertiser. This can be done by a pure tonnage model or by using the various targeting and optimization technologies that many of the ad networks have at their disposal.
If you have direct response goals, this is definitely a pricing model you will want to explore.
The other more typical pricing model is the CPM model. As with most ad-supported sites, an advertiser pays based on the impressions served. Most of the ad networks (all types) will operate on this premise, and you will find a lot of reach with this type of inventory.
CPA deal issues
One key thing to remember when negotiating performance-based deals is what the action definition is. And what I mean here is not only defining what the action is but when that action occurs and is counted.
Many ad networks will do the CPA deal, but only if you count view-based conversions (those that happen post-ad view, not post-click) and have an open-ended cookie window. Since many of the larger ad networks reach a very high percentage of the internet audience, the likelihood of someone visiting one of their sites and ending up on your confirmation page is pretty high, and the correlation of the ad to the action is potentially much lower.
You won’t have as much of an issue with this when working with more niche ad networks -- such as vertical networks Jumpstart Automotive Media and Travel Ad Network) -- since their reach is lower but the audience is very concentrated.
Also, remember that the lower you set the bar in terms of the actual cost you are willing to pay for a conversion will inhibit the volume you are able to drive. Be prepared to be flexible with that threshold and change it as you see the need to drive more volume.
CPM deal issues
Even with the CPM model, you need to make sure you understand what you are paying for.
Does the network have an established agreement to sell that inventory and allow you access to more premium inventory? Or will they place the buy for you once you commit dollars to them and may or maybe not be able to secure the inventory you want at the price you want?
The rep firms and hybrid ad networks will typically have concrete agreements with the publishers and allow you access to the top-tier inventory. Specifically, rep firms will almost always offer this, as they are either the sole sales force or partnered with the site to be the exclusive external sales force.
So now that we have a better idea of the types of networks and their pricing models, let's discuss how that affects the quality of the inventory you will get.
Rep firms will typically represent a lower quantity of sites, as the effort that goes into the selling proposition is much greater and the rep firm needs to spend quality time discussing all the site options with media buyers. They will tend to represent larger and more marquee brands, and the inventory you have access to is likely to be more premium in nature (versus remnant).
That said, there will always be a market for these types of firms since there will always be some level of inventory on any given site that goes unsold, and publishers want to monetize that traffic wherever possible. If the rep firm is not the exclusive representative for a site, you must ask what kind of inventory they have access to. More often than not, these types of programs are used by brand marketers who want higher-quality inventory and control over the sites they run on.
Ad networks: CPM model
So here is a case where you might find a mix of inventory types. With a CPM model, the network is more publisher focused, attempting to find the best match between advertiser and publisher but ensuring that the publisher is paid for the inventory they run. Some networks will have many smaller, niche sites, and some will have a greater proportion of larger, well-branded sites. Be sure you know what types of sites the networks use to make sure it’s the best fit for your campaign.
Another consideration with the CPM model is knowing if you will run on specific sites that you designate within a channel of sites that are appropriate to your product, or if you will be using all sites within the network layered with targeting and optimization technologies to find the best performing sites.
Most networks have some sort of hybrid model, customizing the programs that best fit your needs. When talking to the networks, understand what your options are so you can help guide and direct the program you end up executing. These programs will be used by both brand and direct response marketers. They can fulfill both needs by providing strong traffic or sales activity as well as make sure the brand is well-protected with transparency to the sites it runs on.
Any ad network will offer CPM pricing, but when working with pure ad networks, you will see much lower CPMs than with the hybrid networks since the quality of inventory may not be as high and your ability to customize that program will not be as flexible.
Ad networks: CPA/performance model
Most times when you are doing a CPA deal, the inventory you get may or may not be the premium inventory you are seeking. In fact, most times you have no say in what sites your ads will run on, only that your back-end metrics were fulfilled. This is where you will find the greatest amount of remnant inventory, and you definitely will be running straight banner buys (no sponsorships or beyond-the-banner deals here). Most often, this type of program is for direct marketers with very specific ROI metrics they must hit. And this type of program is offered mainly by the pure ad networks.
One big thing to recognize about the ad network space (and here I mean pure and hybrid networks) is the extent to which there is mass duplication. Many sites will work with multiple ad networks to monetize their inventory.
And it's logical to assume that if a handful of networks claim to reach 70 percent or more of the internet, there has to be duplication. This issue does not apply to rep firms, since in most cases, the sites they represent typically sign up to be part of a pure/hybrid network as well.
One piece of advice: do not run with all the top-reaching networks unless you only count clicks-based conversions and use an ad serving solution such as DART to remove duplication of conversions. As I mentioned in the pricing section regarding CPA concerns, you want to be sure you are only paying for the most highly correlated conversions. You also only want to pay for that conversion once. So consolidate your tracking with a solution such as Floodlight tags and be sure you aren’t wasting any marketing dollars.
Another big differentiator between rep firms and ad networks is the level of programs you can execute with them. And much of this is dependent on the goals of the campaign.
Since they typically rep only a handful of sites and are usually a major source of revenue for these sites, they will not just sell banners. They will work with advertisers to create custom sponsorships and all types of integrated beyond-the-banner solutions. Many of the hybrid ad networks (described earlier) will also do this, such as Tribal Fusion and 24/7.
Ad networks (pure and hybrid)
Pure ad networks, particularly those that follow the arbitrage model and do CPA deals, tend to sell banner buys. These banner buys are very focused on an ROI result and are aimed to meet goals typical of a DR advertiser. So with the main objective not being brand building or message association, there might be less of a need for beyond-the-banner solutions.
With the more hybrid networks, you will likely be able to fulfill both brand and DR goals. Since their agreements with the publishers are more concrete in most cases, their ability to go beyond the banner is stronger.
Your program goals
When thinking about the goals you are trying to achieve, this will help guide you in the direction of what kind of network you want to pursue. With more DR-focused goals, you might be more inclined to work with the larger networks with the ability to execute CPA deals. But don’t rule out the rep firms and hybrid networks (which don’t do CPA deals). They may have sites that will fit well into your plans based on relevancy of the site’s content to your product.
With more brand-based goals, be sure you are working with networks that will be 100 percent transparent with the sites your ads will run on and allow you to exclude certain sites, if need be. Typically, the best route is to go with networks or rep firms that create custom channels for your brand (or have existing custom channels).
For example, say you are a travel advertiser; you are very concerned about your brand and that you only run on sites you know ahead of time. You are concerned with driving transactions but also want to build brand awareness while you drive sales.
First, you might consider a more niche network such as the Travel Ad Network. It has the content you are looking to be associated with, since you are looking for people interested in travel, and you can create beyond-the-banner solutions as well as target to the right mindset. You might also talk to TACODA Systems, for instance, since it has a custom channel targeting users who have exhibited travel searching/shopping behaviors but reaches those users on all sorts of sites, expanding your reach even further.
There are likely a handful of other good options; just make sure you talk to all the potential suitors that seem to make sense. Be sure they understand your goals and you understand how they operate.
Technology is another key differentiator.
There is typically no technology involved. The rep firm will represent and sell the site’s inventory. Rather than using technology, their focus is customer service and attention to detail in executing typically more complex programs. They work on behalf of the publisher to meet each advertiser’s goals but do not have proprietary technology that is amortized across all the sites they represent. And usually an advertiser only buys one to three sites from any one rep firm (versus running on all sites, as all sites are not necessarily applicable).
Most of the ad networks, pure or hybrid, will almost always use some sort of technology to optimize advertisers’ campaigns to the site, placements and creative level based on the back-end metrics. Usually there will be a tracking pixel on the advertiser's site for that specific ad network, and the network will then be able to see performance through to the back end (only for their sites) and work with the client to optimize the campaign. The network will employ any number of optimization and targeting techniques with its technology. Be sure to work with the network to determine the best ways to reach your desired audience and back-end goals.
The ad network space is cluttered with many players, which makes it difficult to tell one from another if you don’t ask the right questions.
Be sure you have a clear picture of the type of audience you want to reach and the goals you are trying to achieve. Not every network will fit the needs of every advertiser, and using the points described here will help guide you when talking to a potential network partner.
Some basic rules to live by in the ad network space are:
- If you are looking to advertise on a specific site, you will likely end up working with a rep firm because the site cannot support a sales force or needs help monetizing all their traffic. Also consider hybrid ad networks that allow you to choose single sites to advertise on.
- Pure or hybrid ad networks are generally used to extend reach and drive volume.
- Brand advertisers are most often better served by rep firms (to buy those single sites not sold elsewhere) or hybrid ad networks that will tell them what sites they will run on and provide efficiencies in reach.
- Direct response advertisers have many options in the ad network space, but with the pure ad networks they have the benefit of CPA deals to drive efficient sales, as well as the option to dial up or down the volume based on ROI thresholds.
- If you want beyond-the-banner solutions, you can still consider the ad networks, but also look to the rep firms and hybrid networks that offer single-site representation.
Doing your due diligence, while time consuming, is very important. Talk to your fellow media planners and buyers and listen to their experiences. Check out the blogs and message boards on various media planning and buying websites. You may not always find the success stories, but most people are typically willing to let you know when they have had a bad experience.
And that's a really good place to start. Ruling out the bad apples will usually help you uncover the good ones.
Google now gets more than 60 percent of U.S. search queries, and Yahoo gets about 20 percent; thus, the majority of searches originate on major engines. The top three (Google, Yahoo and Microsoft) are called first-tier engines because they deliver high traffic levels, good conversion rates and the best reporting tools.
Second-tier engines include the smaller niche, vertical and local search engines and directories that are not so well known or popular. These engines typically have less traffic than the majors but offer less competition for keywords and cheaper keyword prices. While second-tiers may get less traffic, even 1 percent of search market share can equal $100 million in revenue.
There are a number of pros and cons to advertising on second-tier search engines. Selecting the right second-tier for your search campaign is key to success, so it's important to investigate every angle, including the engine's user base and income level, reporting tools, campaign management tools and click fraud protection policy. Possible candidates should be tested for ROI before committing large sums of money.
Advantages of second-tier engines
The top benefits of second-tier search engines are as follows:
- Lower per-click costs
- Less competition for competitive keywords
- Highly targeted audiences
- Quick and easy ad copy testing
- High touch customer support
- Additional source of traffic and conversions
While the main advantage is cost, you can also get some great contextual and behavioral offerings for a fraction of what you might pay on first-tier engines. For example, if your target audience is NASCAR fans, you might try advertising on Kanoodle, where your ads appear on a network of search engines and other popular sites like CNET's Search.com and the InfoSpace properties, including Mamma, WebCrawler and Dogpile.
It is important to define your campaign objectives clearly on second-tiers, setting budget restrictions and a timeframe for determining campaign success.
Most second-tiers give you the option of pausing a campaign to take advantage of working hours or click volumes, which can be advantageous for smaller businesses. You can log into your PPC account in the morning, check the previous day's activities, turn on the accounts when you expect the bulk of inquiries and then pause the account when volumes taper off.
Disadvantages of second-tier engines
The top disadvantages of second-tier search engines are:
- Less traffic volume
- Lower conversion rates
- Lower traffic quality
- Higher click fraud potential
- Less powerful reporting tools
- Aggressive sales reps
The most frequent complaints are low traffic volume, low conversions and low-quality traffic. However, you can compensate for reduced traffic volume with a lower cost-per-conversion if traffic converts well, which happens when you test and select your best performers.
While a major concern on second-tiers has been click fraud, many now provide click fraud protection. For example, ABCSearch, 7Search, eZanga and many others offer anti-fraud technology with AdWatcher and Traffic Advisors.
Note that the disadvantages above do not apply to all second-tiers. Some provide robust reporting applications (e.g., Miva), while others provide great traffic and conversions (e.g., Business.com).
It is important to know what a second-tier's unique selling points are, and the best way to find out is to ask a sales rep. Stay away if they don't provide this information.
With so many second-tiers to choose from, it's important to select those that provide the best performance. Your task is to research, test and find the winners that deliver qualified leads and conversions. Ask questions like:
- What target audience do you serve?
- How do you define a click?
- Do you monitor and reimburse for click fraud?
- Do you give a signup bonus?
- Do you require a minimum deposit; if so, how much?
- Do you require a minimum spend; if so, how much?
- How many unique visitors do you get monthly?
- What are your visitor demographics?
- Do you have a content network; if so, can I opt out?
- Do you have pay-per-call, video or other ad options?
- How robust are your bid management and reporting tools?
- Do you have testimonials from people I can contact?
- How easy is it to reach an account manager?
After satisfying the above questions, use the tips below when planning and managing your campaigns.
- Campaign goals. State your campaign goals clearly. For example, you may want to focus your ads on selling products or services, promoting an event, gaining registrations or boosting exposure for your blog.
- Superior ad copy. Create relevant, emotional headlines to get top performance.
- Precise landing pages. Next to the ad itself, your landing page is crucial for success. Know where you want visitors to land and drive them to a very specific landing page that delivers on the promise of the ad.
- Demographics. Research the second-tier engine's audience and income levels.
- Budgeting. Limit your spend and determine ROI.
- Testing. Allocate a testing budget. Check conversions and ROI before making substantive commitments on second-tiers. The amount of your test budget will depend on company size, PPC budget, number of keywords and keyword competitiveness, etc. If your product or service is not too competitive, you might be able to test for $100 or less.
- Campaign management. Use campaign management and reporting tools to track your conversions and optimize your keywords, ad groups and campaigns. Check availability and flexibility of tracking tools on second-tiers.
- Click fraud. Research click fraud protection and reimbursement policies.
Note: The above questions and tips also apply to contextual and vertical search but are not repeated on the following pages.
Most search engines provide advertising on content networks, whereby your ad is displayed alongside content on partner sites for click-through to your landing page. Some second-tiers offer excellent content networks. For example, Business.com has a content network that includes Forbes, BusinessWeek, Hoovers, Financial Times and Entrepreneur -- excellent exposure for a business and finance target audience.
Another good example is MIVA, with a content network that includes both text ads and inline ads on a network of sites including CNET, InfoSpace and Search.com. This might work well if you are selling electronics, software or technical products and services.
There are many details to be aware of when it comes to content networks on second-tiers, so you must study the interface and know the rules. For instance, PPC campaigns are usually automatically opted into the content network on second-tier engines. So if you don't want contextual search, you must opt out.
Advantages of contextual search
Top advantages are lower click costs, less competition and targeted audiences. The cost advantage is greater because keywords on content networks cost less than those on search engines. While you might get fewer conversions, the campaign will likely yield a good ROI.
People spend more time on content sites than search engines. The exposure of your product and website in online content has high value, especially on popular sites. Visitors reading the content online already have a high degree of interest in the topic; thus, if your ad is relevant and catchy, users will likely click through to your site or bookmark it for later consideration.
You can get better visibility at lower cost with contextual search. Content ads are not as competitive as search engine ads because there is more click inventory on publisher sites than on search engine results pages (SERPs). You get less clutter, as content ads are usually displayed in groups of three or four, so your ads will stand out more than in the SERPs.
Disadvantages of contextual search
Content ads provide less traffic and lower conversions than search engine ads. Additionally, the click fraud potential is higher. If your contextual campaign is on second-tiers, the reporting and campaign management tools are not as robust as those provided by first-tier engines.
Conversion rates are lower for contextual search because sometimes ads appear on irrelevant pages and get bad clicks. Additionally, the ads may not distract attention from the site content. Issues of timing and readiness to buy are also a factor. Because contextual ads are displayed on publisher sites through the search network distribution system, they don't display as quickly as ads displayed directly in search results. That lowers conversion rates.
Prospects reaching your site from a search engine ad are likely ready to buy because they are actively searching keywords, looking for the products and services queried. However, prospects viewing your contextual ad are likely reading about a related topic. They might click through or bookmark, but are not likely to make a purchase.
Branding is a top marketing objective. It makes sense to use content ads for branding rather than direct response because of the audience's mindset. Users are not actively searching for your product or service but encounter your ad while reading related content. Therefore, contextual ads require different creative, keyword lists, landing pages, bidding strategies and ROI goals than ads on search engines because you are reaching more passive users at an earlier stage in the buying cycle.
Keyword selection is highly specialized. Rather than target keywords describing your brand, product or service, your list should include words that appear most frequently on the pages where you want your ads to appear.
Copy in your ads must stand out and distract with a clear call to action. Use special offers and promotions. Create a sense of urgency with time-sensitive appeals. Test and retest copy. Use your ads to leverage the interest built up through the content on the page.
Test search engine and contextual campaigns separately to adjust different campaign elements depending on performance. Develop competing contextual ads for different search engines to identify winners. Don't test before or during holiday shopping seasons, as results would be skewed.
Contextual advertising can expose your brand or product/service to thousands of prospects you might not otherwise reach, but careful crafting and testing is required for success.
Vertical search engines (VSEs) are specialized engines and directories providing search results from content databases related to a specific industry, geographic area or topical subject. Vertical search includes local search, topical search (e.g., travel, soccer, hobbies, etc.) and B2B industrial search. The information below refers to topical and B2B industrial search more than local search. For detailed information on local search, see "Strike business gold in local search."
As content on Google and Yahoo increases exponentially, it becomes more challenging to find relevant results in major search engines. In 2006, Outsell reported a 31.9 percent failure rate among business users when researching topics on general search engines. Since then, vertical search engines have increased in number and popularity. This makes VSEs an excellent venue for additional sources of traffic and conversions.
Advantages of vertical search
Vertical search can give you more leads for less money. As top ROI and positioning becomes harder to achieve on general search engines due to keyword competition, marketers get better rates on VSEs -- an excellent way to get brand exposure for attracting new clients.
If your product requires direct response, users searching on vertical engines are closer to making a purchase decision. VSEs frequently advertise on major search engines, bringing additional traffic and potential customers to your site.
Vertical search engines provide more advertising options than you'll find on general search engines. This includes banner ads, email blasts, sponsored placements, blog posts and industry newsletter ads.
Customer service is excellent on VSEs, and many provide help centers that take you through the online advertising process.
Users can reach highly targeted audiences in smaller databases that provide first-hand knowledge and information within the industry or niche.
Disadvantages of vertical search
Despite the advantages listed above, many VSEs fall short in attracting users. Why? Research from E-consultancy-Convera (2008) shows 38 percent of respondents don't always find a good vertical in their field, and 32 percent said vertical results were not comprehensive enough.
While 93 percent of respondents said they were "very" or "quite likely" to use a vertical in their field, the majority (91 percent) said they simply rely on major search engines. Only 7 percent admitted using a vertical engine several times a day. Interestingly, only 7 percent of respondents rated vertical results as "excellent" versus 27.5 percent that gave top marks to general search. It would appear vertical search needs to improve results as most respondents rated VSEs as "good" or "average."
As long as general search is good enough and online habits die hard, it is difficult to move most users beyond Google.
It is important to research the engine to ensure it actually targets your industry or niche. Ask about the size of the index (i.e., the number of product and service classifications). It is also important to test the site for ease of use. If you find it hard to use, chances are potential customers will, too.
Index size is a good indicator of success, as the larger the classification system, the more companies, products and services will be listed. User numbers are also higher with larger index sizes, making it more likely your ads will be seen.
You can find appropriate vertical engines for advertising your business in DMOZ, the Yahoo! Directory or NYPL.org. Once you develop a list of engines for your target audience, you can discuss your advertising options with an ad sales representative.
VSEs provide a variety of ad options, including PPC ads on the engine or the content network, cost-per-impression (fixed rate based on x-number of page views), cost-per-action (pay for conversions) and fixed fee (flat rate for specified actions). You can test the different options yourself or take the advice of a reputable VSE rep who can advise which options are best for your business.
There are many good paid search advertising opportunities on second-tier engines, content networks and vertical search engines. However, one must weigh the advantages and disadvantages in finding the best sources of alternate search traffic. Once you do your homework, the use of these ad vehicles can increase your marketing ROI with more visibility, lower keyword prices, less competition and more traffic and conversions.
Claudia Bruemmer is a freelance writer-editor and internet marketing consultant.
Understand each other's point of view from the start
What's your approach and what's our approach to marketing? Where do we differ and why? Where do we agree and why? I wish we had more of these conversations. Many of the agency and client kickoff meetings I've attended are very straightforward with what has been done in the past and what the goals are for the future. Maybe some of that work has been done in the agency evaluation stage, but those conversations generally involve execs at the highest level. It's absolutely fantastic when I see both sides of the table on the front lines ready, able, and willing to speak to marketing style and point of view.
One of the reasons why this is so important in our industry versus other industries is that digital marketing is a young business that is still working out the kinks. Standards and best practices are few and far between. If you ask a group of industry vets what their POV is on a certain hot topic, you will get a variety of answers especially if their backgrounds come from different sides of the industry.
Of course, that initial knowledge transfer meeting has to happen. However, I'd like to see that conversation evolve to a much deeper level where both sides air their stylistic similarities and differences. Once you understand the why and the how of the person sitting across from you, the what makes much more sense. This can be a very scary prospect for industry folks who haven't yet perfected their craft or are capable of articulating their aesthetic. Explaining your approach can leave you open for criticism and you could even turn off the listener if they don't agree with your point of view.
And that's why this doesn't happen enough. Even though many clients would be more than willing to have this conversation, if there's even the slightest possibility that the client side isn't interested in this dialogue, then agencies might not risk rocking the boat. But imagine the upside -- it would force both sides to get a better handle on what they actually believe to be the essence of great marketing and raise the conversation to a higher level. Plus, by going through this exercise, both sides would have a better understanding of the motivations and goals of the other which is unbelievably helpful in any partnership.
Agencies need to be treated like experts and live up to that level of trust
Just five years ago, online marketing was primarily email, search, and banners. But today, with mobile, social, online video, apps, RTB, etc., this industry is innovating at such a fast pace that even experts who spend their entire day focused on digital marketing are having trouble keeping up to speed. When you also factor in that most client contacts only spend a portion of their time focused on digital, the need for advertisers to rely on outside expertise is more important now than ever before.
Yet, agencies can't expect everyone to take whatever they say at face value, especially when part of a client contact's responsibility is to be risk adverse and question everything. Part of the job at an agency is not just presenting ideas, but selling them in as well. And I don't mean "selling" them in terms of "BS-ing" anyone -- you have to learn how your client best digests your recommendations and provide them in that format.
Agencies -- if you feel that your client counterpart is hesitant to immediately accept what you're saying, don't take it personally. It's probably just cautiousness stemming from their aforementioned need to be risk adverse. However, some of it also stems from the fact that many agencies seem like black boxes to advertisers. A lot of processes and knowledge is shielded from clients as things agencies might feel clients don't need to know or are too busy to take the time to understand. Unfortunately, when there's mystery involved, it can be very natural to be dubious even when there's nothing to be suspicious about. An advanced dialogue helps build trust through transparency.
To evolve the agency and client conversation, I'd like to see more leaps of faith on the client side. On the flip side, agencies, if the client does put that trust in our hands, we have to live up to our end of the bargain. We need to know our clients' businesses as well as they know their businesses and we need to bring them advanced, well conceptualized ideas that are aligned with their brand and goals. We also need to present the information with the right timing (don't bring a Q1 idea in the middle of Q3) and in a way that is very palatable for them and portable enough to pass around to their teams.
Measurement and holistic digital advertising
As a media technologist and analytics practitioner, I support web measurement and data insights as much as the next guy. There's certainly a ton of directional evidence that can be used to best plan and buy digital campaigns. But, (and here comes the "but") I'm constantly floored with how much emphasis this industry puts into the absolute numbers. There are just so many discrepancies and footnotes with how data is collected and viewed that I could fill 10 columns on iMediaConnection. For example, consumers now use an average of 10.4 different information sources before making a purchase -- and use multiple devices (I've heard between four and seven) to access digital content. Most of these touch points are untrackable, or if they are trackable, they can't be perfectly integrated into the overall measurement strategy.
The analogy I use most often in this discussion is the U.S. Economic Index. The Economic Index is a set of ten key variables that the government (and most economists) uses to judge the health of the American economy that include things such as the unemployment rate, building permit registration, consumer confidence, etc. But no economist in their right mind would narrowly focus on a single variable and declare any confident conclusion.
Recently, comScore's Josh Chasin remarked that everyone on Madison Avenue knows "that digital is the most measurable medium," and then made the observation that the corollary is, "that sometimes digital ends up being the medium with the most measures." At some point in our industry's past, we forgot that the metrics were there to help us build informed insights. Instead, we have spent our time trying to affect the metrics. Not to say that conversions aren't important -- they are, especially for direct response dollars in a strictly, online-only business, but you have to know what you're actually looking at to make any concrete conclusions.
Advertisers, you should know that your agency is going to tell you how they feel but are going to do what you say. It's very hard for an agency manager to try to reset this complex topic with their own colleagues, let alone with clients who have been working in a metrics and conversion focused world for years. It's not anyone's fault -- the entire industry has pushed this direction for years, and to change this mindset is going to take a lot of work on both sides.
I think most experienced agency execs would rightly say that you need to pick and choose your battles, but a unified measurement approach is one of the most important needs facing our industry. A lot of folks are simply winging it and are focused on getting your metrics up without necessarily forwarding the true campaign goals. It starts on the front lines with agencies and clients having this dialogue. When agencies don't feel like they can have this dialogue, the entire industry is held back.
Advertisers, in many cases the metrics you're tracking might actually be perfectly suited for your campaign. But a good place to start would be to ask your agency what they really feel about the metrics they're presenting to you every month and provide them a safe forum to bring up some of these more debatable ideas on measurement like attribution. You might have to prod them a bit. They have to feel that they won't get their knuckles wrapped if you disagree with what they present. I'm not saying all of the numbers need to be thrown out -- just make sure that both of you aren't completely evaluating campaign success on arbitrary metrics going up or down. Evolve the conversation and you will get rewarded for it.