Search Finds Roles Throughout Buy Cycle

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Search engine experts agree that marketers need to reach potential customers at all the varied touch points along their purchasing path.

And as consumers have increased their use of search throughout the purchase process, opportunity for the channel exists in all stages of the buying cycle.

"Search is moving quickly from a narrow online customer acquisition channel to a consumer engagement channel through which marketers can connect with consumers at every level in the purchase process," said Stuart Frankel, general manager at DoubleClick's Performics unit, Chicago. "Marketers need to take a broad view of the value search adds to the overall marketing mix, both online and offline."

Building relationships and perceptions, consideration and comparison and then purchase are the steps through the buying process, said Ron Belanger, senior director of channel strategy and development for Yahoo Search Marketing Awareness.

Misty Locke, president of Range Online Media, Hermosa Beach, CA, advised using non-branded search terms.

"Most studies show the basic pattern to be that a consumer searches with less-branded terms earlier in their buy cycle," she said. In later stages of the cycle, consumers then search mostly branded terms.

"Another challenge I see marketers facing is the tendency to lower search spend during low or off-peak seasons," she said. "It is a great time to capture additional market share because all of your competitors are lowering their search spend."
Ms. Locke noted that the holiday shopping season usually peaks around late November or early December.

"It's easy for clients to allocate most of their budgets around this time," she said.
Having a presence before this time is vital because products with a longer buying cycle are usually being researched weeks in advance, Ms. Locke said.
"It is important to make sure you have coverage during research periods -- October and early November, for example," she said. "A marketer also needs to keep in mind that the results might not be seen until later in the campaign."

Best Practices:

  • Have keywords for each stage of the buying cycle, as opposed to keywords segmented by product type or category.
  •  For keywords in the awareness-building stage (brand building), have messages that speak succinctly to the brand's value proposition. Copy should not be offer-driven as these consumers are not ready to buy. Rather, they are learning and will respond best to messages that indicate you are offering to educate.
  • For keywords at the message association and perceptions stage, remember that consumers are now making a short list of vendors/brands to consider. These may be searchers who are looking specifically for more information on your brand. Why is your brand better, cheaper or more relevant than competitors'? Again, these consumers are gathering information and will respond to messages/landing pages that acknowledge this.
  • For consumers ready to buy, offer incentives and added value. For example, why should a consumer buy through your Web site versus a distribution partner? Direct marketing elements play an important role here.
  • The relationship with your consumer does not end with the purchase. Offer support/service through search for consumers who are looking for information on product usage or assistance with set-up. If they used search to learn about the product initially, they are likely to go back when they need help. This is a chance to provide a positive experience.
  • Use appropriate measurement for each stage. Do not measure the efficacy of your awareness-building campaigns with a conversion metric. Rather, look at engagement as a relative measure of success.
  • Use data overlays from other sales channels. Are your search efforts affecting sales for your call center? Another channel could be benefiting from your search efforts, though you may not be assigning the appropriate credit.
  • The most important best practice: think like a consumer. Think about the various need states that you have as a consumer. If you are researching St. Martin versus Hawaii for your honeymoon, you are likely to respond better to a "Learn about St. Martin's pristine beaches and cosmopolitan cuisine" message rather than a "Save $50 on Grand Case Beach Club by booking today!"
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