Branding and (re)Search

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Many advertisers view search as the ideal direct response medium. What could be more direct than presenting your product(s) right when someone is searching for it?


Advertisers are more divided, however, on the branding value of search. There is a fair amount of skepticism about the usefulness of search marketing in building brand awareness and loyalty. Nonetheless, we are seeing more and more budget being allocated to branding campaigns, and there's a good reason for this change. Namely: Winning a customer over to a brand is many times more valuable than closing an online sale.


I can disclose some of my own purchasing habits as an example. I like to think that I am not particularly brand conscious, but as I made an inventory of my tastes and preferences, I came to the conclusion: Who am I kidding? I am loyal to brands from toothpaste to cars to fly fishing gear. Especially fly fishing gear. Like many amateur fly fishermen, I'm not very skilled but I do like to spend money.


At a very formative moment in my pursuit of fly fishing, I took a class. The class was offered by Orvis through a local fly fishing shop. For three days, Orvis had my captive attention while I learned about the myriad complexities of fly fishing. Foremost was the lesson: when in doubt, trust Orvis. Anyone who has spent hours sifting through muck looking for evidence of emerging insect life knows that fly fishing is accompanied by a lot of doubt.


Even though I paid for the class, one wonders how much it was worth to Orvis to have me there at that moment. In some sense, every purchase of Orvis gear I make for the rest of my life will owe something to that class. A component of my brand loyalty is that I am willing to pay more for Orvis gear because I trust that it will be well made. Not only that, but I am happy to tell anyone who will listen of my allegiance to the brand.


While my Orvis experience was decidedly offline, I have had similar experiences with brands online. My searches for information about subjects as diverse as coffee, boat building and network protocols have led to ongoing relationships with vendors. Direct responses to ads can lead to long-term relationships as well, but often end with a single purchase.


What is most attractive about online direct response advertising is that it is relatively easy to measure. If a visitor clicks on an ad and subsequently makes a purchase, the purchase can be attributed to the ad by means of a cookie or session variable assigned to the visitor as he/she navigates a Web site. But ease of measurement does not equate to value. A visitor who becomes a long-term customer is difficult to track, but worth far more than a single purchaser.


The challenge of measuring branding value has caused many search marketers to dismiss its importance, but this is shortsighted given what we know about search behavior. As much as search is a means of locating products, it is an invaluable tool for research and education. Several J.D. Power studies have shown that most car buyers start by doing research on the Web. Various other studies have supported similar conclusions regarding financial services, consumer electronics and other goods.


By catching a prospect when he or she is in research mode, you have the opportunity to link your brand to the knowledge he or she gains. If you are successful, the hook is set and all you have to do is be patient and pay out the line.


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