Search engine marketing (SEM) is a powerful thing. It defines what people will see when they look for your brand online -- if they find it at all. So whether you're a seasoned SEM expert or just getting started, there are three things that you should always keep in mind when working on your brand's search marketing to ensure that you get the best digital visibility.
An active brand starts with the consumer
You have to start with the consumer. It is an easy proposition, to be sure, but it is also something that countless campaigns overlook. First, think about the consumers and understand what they want, how they search for information, and how they consume content.
When problems arose with the iPhone 4's antenna, Apple stayed quiet for three weeks. That's a lot of time, especially on the internet. In addition to ongoing conversation on social networks, there was quite a bit of press speculating on the issue during that period, cultivating a significant search volume. If there was ever a time for iPhone customers to search for news online, it was then. Apple's competition jumped on the opportunity -- in the three weeks that Apple stayed silent, several of Apple's competitors bought all the major search keywords, including "iPhone 4 issue," "iPhone 4 antenna," and "iPhone problems."
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It wasn't just the competition, either. Consumer Reports bought a lot of these keywords and used them to drive users to a report that recommended against buying the iPhone. Blackberry took it one step further and got very creative by launching the "no recalls required" ad. While Apple stayed quiet, Blackberry capitalized on consumer fears. Competitors used Apple's silence to steal the search traffic and perpetuate the issue.
Don't silo the search marketing -- or any one part of the marketing
Successful search marketing needs to connect with the other elements of your marketing campaign -- television, print, digital, and so forth. Statistics show that 67 percent of consumers will search for a product online after they've been exposed to some sort of offline marketing (i.e., a television ad or a conversation with a friend). Yet, only 55 percent of search marketers integrate offline channels with their search marketing efforts. When a consumer sees a brand promotion on television and then can't find it online, it frustrates the consumer (most likely resulting in a loss of sale for the brand) and benefits the brand's competitors because that consumer is likely to search for the product elsewhere.
Even the most successful brands could lose millions in potential sales if it doesn't connect search marketing to a holistic marketing plan. An example is the "Twilight" franchise, undisputedly one of the most successful brands in recent history. "Twilight" had a huge number of fans across the major social networks -- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. -- and spent a fortune on TV advertising. Unfortunately, the franchise neglected to spend adequate dollars on search. Initially, if a consumer searched "'Twilight' and 'Robert Pattinson,'" the official film website didn't come up first -- instead, it drew the fan sites. Even when searching for "Eclipse movie," the official site showed up further down the page. The marketers lost all of that search traffic in addition to what could have translated to more sales of DVDs, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia. The kicker? SEM would have been extremely cost effective -- about five cents per click -- in comparison to the millions spent on TV advertising.
That's not to say that spending on television is wrong. As I mentioned earlier, offline sources play a huge role in motivating search and creating active brands. Eliminate the TV ads, and you would see a massive decrease in search traffic. To attain maximum success, every aspect of a campaign needs to work together cohesively to create a truly integrated marketing plan.
Pay attention to (and become a part of) the conversation surrounding your brand
This is advice that a lot of people will give you, but following it is harder than it looks. To really take part in a brand conversation, you need to generate content for it at the right time (though, ideally, this would be always) and then you need to drive people to it. This advice is especially pertinent when it comes to doing damage control.
Take Toyota, for example. The company faced a major issue this year when problems were discovered with its brakes. Eighty-three percent of car shoppers use the internet to research their choices, so you can imagine the impact on search in this instance. Toyota tried to keep things quiet, but quickly realized that mass amounts of people were searching online to gauge the seriousness of the problem. What did the company do? It took action. Toyota created a website with information on the recall: the latest models affected, what to do about it, how to find a dealership, etc. The company also purchased links for searches on the recall, such as "Toyota recall brakes" and "Toyota recall." People who searched for information on the recall could find it easily because Toyota made it easy.
Toyota paid attention to its consumers and put itself in the middle of the discussion. That type of strategic thinking produces results; despite the recalls, Toyota posted a $3.6 billion net profit in the first fiscal half of 2010.
Summing it up
Many would say that the biggest barrier to successful search marketing for an active brand is the digital and technical know-how. That might be true -- there is a lot to learn before you can master the techniques including adequate search budgets. The foundation for SEM is to understand the fundamentals: know your consumer, integrate the separate parts of your campaign, and make your brand a part of the conversation. If you can start there, your brand is on the way to success.
Melanie Mitchell is SVP of search strategy at Digitas.
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