Using Search Marketing Throughout the Buy Cycle

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Part two of a two-part article.

In part one of this article, I discussed how search marketing continues to have a greater impact on all phases of the consumer buy cycle and why it is important to plan search campaigns with that in mind. But knowledge alone does not equal success. In part two you'll find insights that highlight best practices, explain the "how" and help you better leverage search marketing through the buy cycle.

The consumer buy cycle varies by industry, and the length of each phase depends on many things like brand name, time of year, price and other market forces. For example, the cycle is shorter for a highly branded $15 book (less research and consideration) than for a lesser-known brand trying to sell a $500 tech gadget in a competitive market (more research, consideration and purchase barriers). Similarly, you'll find it easier to get a consumer to fill out a short lead form with little personal information than a three-page loan form that requires a lot of personal information.

Though the length of the cycle may vary, research by firms like comScore shows that search behavior over these varying amounts of time is very similar. The majority of searchers start with generic keyword phrases, continue to focus with other generics and finally get to the narrower, branded search if they haven't been connected with what they desire. In a sense, the branded search is more often the consumer's last hope to find what they seek, not their first instinct.

That being said, here are some actionable search marketing best practices you can use across the entire consumer buy cycle.

<B>Think differently about keyword lists. </B> Chances are you use one of two strategies when building and launching keyword lists. One, you start with everything and whittle away what doesn't convert, then continue to optimize this smaller subset of keywords. Two, you start with a smaller set of targeted keywords, then build the list over time based on what converts best and where you think gaps exist based on competitive intelligence and overall campaign performance data.

Either way, if you focus too much on short-term results, you will miss out on a large set of potential customers. The right approach should address not only higher-volume, lower-converting terms and low-volume, high-converting terms, but all those terms that make sense in between.

Casting a wider net to include terms from the most generic to the most specific will maximize the chance to drive sales growth through search marketing. Furthermore, marketers who add various keyword modifiers, misspellings and plurals to their list and budget for a presence across all of these various keyword types will be able to attract a larger audience of in-market searchers across the buy cycle (those who are just starting research as well as those who are ready to buy/take action). This gives you an appropriate presence at all phases of the cycle.

<B>The filter and the net. </B> It's not enough to have a good keyword list that ensures your presence at each step in the buy cycle. You also need to develop and test creative that coincides with where the keyword falls within the cycle.

For example, your creative for the generic search "digital cameras" at the start of the cycle might say "Quality Digital Cameras. Compare the best-selling models. Select the right camera for you." This more generic creative acts as a net, letting marketers capture a larger percentage of searchers who have not yet defined a brand or product model.

A more defined search like "cheap canon digital cameras" should yield creative that says something like: "Canon Digital Cameras. Find & Compare the Best Deals for Canon Digital Cameras. Buy & Save Now!" This creative acts more as a filter, aimed at bringing in only people truly interested in Canon digital cameras. Use either the filter or the net, and test, test, test.

High-impact landing pages. Just as it's important to target creative to the appropriate point in the buy cycle, the same is true of landing pages. Put on your customer hat and consider the consumer mindset based on the keyword phrase they typed into the search engine and the creative they clicked on. There should be no surprises here. Take consumers to a page that either solves their problem or meets their need quickly.

Using the digital camera example above, take generic searchers to product review or testimonial pages where they can review other consumers' input on multiple brands in a given category as they continue to form opinions about products. Take more specific/narrow creative to product-specific pages that highlight only that product or product category and present the final price, enable feature comparisons and create a more focused user environment to maximize conversion. The more narrow the keyword phrase and creative, the more focused the landing page should be.

<B>Widen your conversion window. </B>Based on the research I've referenced in this article, it should be clear that search-generated conversions of any type often take place days and weeks after the consumer's initial search. Therefore, a keyword or ad group that looks like a dog after two days of action might be your best performer after you return from the weekend break. Avoid the natural tendency to delete generic keywords that don't convert five minutes after they've been launched. My point here isn't to get you to hold out hope on all keywords while you sit by and lose money for months. It's to reinforce the importance of understanding your company or consumer's conversion timeline and to optimize your search marketing campaign accordingly.

<B>Use a liquid bid and rank strategy. </B> Surely marketers should assign a different value to a consumer at the various stages of the buy cycle, which again varies by industry. Test different bidding strategies and ranks across the cycle to see what works best for you. You might find it's enough to rank fifth on terms at the start of the cycle, but that you need to be in the top three results as consumers refine searches more relevant to your product.

Those offering lower-price-point, lower-consideration items may care less about these early stages as these searchers tend to decide faster with fewer searchers. However, companies trying to build a brand or those in a competitive market involving more purchase consideration may set a higher value on the early stages because they must fight for attention and keep it as consumers refine their search and draw closer to conversion. By appearing continuously in the top results with various creative messages (matched to the consumer's point in the funnel), a marketer can become increasingly relevant, ensure a place in the consideration set and have a better chance to drive the consumer not just to have interest, but to convert.

<B>Patient campaign analysis. </B>Avoid narrow, CFO-like campaign analysis. Look at the right data points or trends across the entire buy cycle and beyond the immediate ROI bottom line. This approach may be uncomfortable to you at first and may lead to some stress in the short term, but you'll learn how to stretch your marketing dollars further while finding hidden opportunities throughout the cycle that you once were not patient enough to realize.

Remember AIDA. To win, you need to get the Attention of consumers, peak their Interest, create/increase their Desire for your product/service and make it as easy as possible for them to take Action with your company. We all know the story about the tortoise and the hare. The same is proving true about search marketers. There's no shortcut to the finish line (aka, conversion). Slow and steady across the buy cycle wins the race.

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