Competitive brand-jacking occurs in many markets that have strong online sales and a complex web of channel and promotional partners. For example, according to new research of one sample industry, the U.S. hotel industry loses approximately $1.9 billion annually in online bookings because channel partners and affiliates compete with the hotels' direct channels by using branded search terms in paid search campaigns. Once a customer who is searching for a specific hotel brand has been attracted to the website of a hotel partner or affiliate, that customer often books a room at one of the competing properties displayed on these sites.
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The power of branded search terms is well known, especially at later stages of the sales cycle when searchers become purchasers. Search engines, in general, do not restrict the use of branded search terms to the brand itself, unless there is a clear case for bait and switch, piracy, or counterfeiting. In the case of the hotel industry, it's an advertising practice that adversely affects online bookings for the hotels and can also lead to paying unnecessary commissions and affiliate fees for traffic seeking the hotel's own booking site.
Brands that do not specify how their terms can be used in online search and promotion risk losing business that is searching for that very brand. Online advertising professionals hold the driver's seat view of how a company's search terms are referenced online. As the losses in the hotel industry illustrate, additional levels of sophistication in managing the use of branded terms is emerging as a must-do for pay-per-click (PPC) professionals.
How do you take the leadership role in protecting branded search term use by partners or affiliates?
Here's a recommended process that many brands are adopting:
Examine marketing partner and affiliate contracts and work with your legal team to include provisions that spell out how your company's brand terms can be used and what enforcement measures will be taken.
If you don't already have a database of your company's branded terms, now is the time to create one. You will want to share this database with your affiliates and channel partners so they will know which branded terms are off limits for their use. Of course, the database will be subject to updates as your company adds additional brands or changes existing brands.
Set up a formal online monitoring and enforcement process with the legal team to track misuse and take action according to the terms of your newly revised contracts. Proactive monitoring should track the offenders, the terms, geographical markets, and time of day when misuse occurs. There are a number of software applications available that automate this tracking process.
Bring your social media manager into the conversation to identify how your efforts to protect your brand can complement each other and add to the overall online standing for your brand. As Lisa Buyer noted in a recent Search Engine Watch article, marketers need to "control [their] branded search results before there is a problem."
Become familiar with the process for reporting brand search term misuse to the major search engines. The responsibility for informing the search engines on abusive practices rests with the brand itself. Your monitoring program will identify instances of abusive competitive practices that are actionable with the search engines.
At the end of the day, developing and enforcing clear policies for branded search term usage by partners and affiliates saves money from unnecessary commission and affiliate payments and ensures the business delivered by extended network partners is truly incremental. PPC professionals who drive their online marketing campaigns to the next level of sophistication by protecting their clickstreams and branded search terms will reap the benefits in increased revenue and customer engagement.
Frederick Felman is the CMO at MarkMonitor.
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