Search budgets: Use it or lose it time

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The clock is ticking and your budget is in jeopardy. Overspent, you ask? Nope. For many marketers, it is under-spending that sends them into fits of panic as the year comes to an end.

Forget conversations about being particularly efficient this year; the financial powers that be will most likely point to over-budgeting. And chances are, next year your request for funds will be chopped accordingly.

Putting aside all conversation on proper budgeting practices, the fact remains that more than one chief marketing officer is in a scramble to commence some project or another before the New Year is rung in. As the unspoken rules in this game read, a statement of work must be signed and the work invoiced before Dec. 31.

Making matters particularly complicated is the fact that for some firms, the funds must map exactly to the line item for which they were designated - $10,000 left in sponsorships? $5,000 tied to direct marketing? A whopping $50,000 remaining in your interactive budget? Unless you have a fabulous relationship with your suite of agencies, this week will be focused on how to fit square pegs into round holes.

Or perhaps not. In a conversation with Andrew Wagner, colleague and CEO of TrafficBuyer Digital, I realized that "use it or lose it money" need not be spent foolishly.

Mr. Wagner suggests that firms take advantage of an excess of funds by trying out new vendors with no strings attached. Having worked at a spectrum of agencies, I have seen this approach work out well, particularly with search engine marketing.

So if a hole is burning in your pocket, consider spending as follows:

· Try out a new set of PPC keywords. For most search engine marketers, there is a set of pay-per-click keywords that they'd like to test, but don't dare, for fear of decreasing ROI. End of the year testing is an excellent means of gauging response and informing future campaigns.

· Expand SEO beyond product pages . I frequently remind marketers that there is a benefit to optimizing all content. Garnering visibility for career opportunities, corporate information, social responsibility and partnerships delivers a return in the form of good will and brand equity.

· Commence landing page testing . If you aren't already testing, this is an ideal time to get your feet wet with the various vendors.

· Invest in emerging technologies . Throughout most of the year, venturing into the early stages of mobile, local or video might seem imprudent. However, testing with early adopters is an excellent means of staying a head of the game.

· Tie search to another effort . Even if you think you are maxed out on search, chances are there is another department that might benefit. For example, if the promotions team is running a sweepstakes, offer up a PPC campaign to build the database. Likewise, if HR is in a crunch to hire in January, spend on setting up a new campaign to drive qualified employees.

Once you have pinpointed your effort and signed the statement of work, I do hope you have time to focus on a more enjoyable use or lose decision: how to spend this year's vacation days.

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