The Ontario tourism board and I have been butting heads a little bit in the blogosphere as of late. It all came about from an article I wrote a few weeks ago saying that perhaps Canadian advertisers have their "heads up their ass" with search marketing. I used the Ontario Tourism Board as an example of a major organization that was not doing search and was quickly corrected by Nick Pedota from the board, who indicated that they were in fact doing a search campaign. My problem was that I couldn't find them for any of the keywords I thought they would typically appear for. It seemed to me that there was a disconnect here. This week I published a follow-up column indicating that perhaps there was a mismatch between the objectives and the allocation of budget in the Ontario Tourism strategy. In a follow-up comment to the column, Nick graciously complemented me on my research and admitted that perhaps there was room for improvement in their integrated search strategy. My suspicion is that the cracks in the strategy don't lie exclusively with either the Ontario Tourism board or their agency but likely fall somewhere in between. And it's not uncommon to find these cracks when major advertisers move into trying to integrate search in their overall campaign strategies. Kudos are in order for Ontario Tourism's recognition of search at all.
In the spirit of improvement, I'd like to offer Nick and other marketers a few tips for successfully integrating search into an overall marketing campaign.
Search should be your first dollars in
Typically, search is added as an afterthought in most marketing campaigns. In fact, search should be the foundation of the campaign. This should be the first allocation of funds. Searchers are often your best prospects. They're the ones that are actively involved in trying to find you. In the case of the Ontario Tourism Board the entire campaign objective was to drive people to their website. Therefore, it didn't make much sense to not fully utilize search as a channel and to steer dollars instead to less efficient branding channels such as print and television.
In this case, the first thing that should have been done was to accurately assess the size of the potential search market. This would've been done during the keyword analysis, when the prime keywords were identified and the corresponding search volumes were discovered. A smart search marketer would be able to determine the key phrases most likely to convert and would start with these, but would then work outwards to determine the total size of the keyword basket. Going hand in hand with this is the determination of the average click cost for these keywords. The search marketer has to make the determination if the cost per click is justified, given the likelihood to convert.
Once the total available search inventory that meets the quality threshold is established, this should form the core of your marketing budget. These are prospects are raising their hand, indicating that they're looking to find you. They should be the first ones captured in your marketing strategy. Then you can extend the campaign with other branding intiatives.
Realize that branding dollars will drive search volume
Even after you extend your budget into areas other than search, quite often the dollars spent here will translate into search activity. In the case of Ontario Tourism, they ran their website address in all their ads. But much of this activity would have translated into searches on the primary search engines. Therefore, you need top of page presence to capture these navigational searches. Ontario Tourism also did some national advertising, primarily on television, and in this case in particular there is a high likelihood that search would be used to find the site. Unfortunately with Ontario Tourism's geo targeting and other limits on maximizing their search presence, it's unlikely that searchers would be able to find a site to click through to. So, in effect, you lose two ways here. You're spending the money on branding to drive traffic and then you're not capturing that traffic by ensuring you have an adequate search presence.
Bid on the head words if budget allows
A common mistake with many first-time search marketers is to compare click costs on different keywords against each other, rather than against other lead generation channels. Head words, the high traffic key phrases that generally form the bulk of the potential traffic, typically cost much more than the long tail phrases. The neophyte search marketer, in an attempt to be price conscious, often deletes the head words from consideration because of the expense, relative to more niche phrases. But this is often the wrong comparison. What the marketer should do is compare the cost per acquisition against the typical cost per acquisition of other channels. In the case of Ontario Tourism, even their most expensive potential phrases would've cost under two dollars per click. Even under the most optimistic of conversion scenarios, much of their print advertising would have been costing 15 times that. It was a false economy to delete the head words from the budget consideration, as it would've closed the loop on their search strategy and ended up bringing highly qualified prospects at a much lower cost per conversion than their other channels. If you've truly allocated as much as possible to your search budget and the head words are still not within reach, then bidding on long tail phrases is really your only option. But until you've made sure that you're putting your first dollars in the search, don't eliminate the head words from consideration.
Remember, if it isn't clicked you don't pay
It's typical to use targeting extensively to make sure that traditional marketing is aimed at the right prospects. You would pick your media channels based on their target demographics. Often, this thinking is transferred into search but again this could prove to be a false economy. Ontario Tourism decided to use geo targeting to target their primary markets, which was the province of Ontario and the neighboring US border states. They also put budget caps in place and put time parameters on their campaign. All of these moves would have made sense if budget were extremely limited. It always makes sense to buy your best clicks first. But as I mentioned above, in this case search should have been the first dollars in and this would've allowed Ontario Tourism to extend their search campaign to capture all of the potential traffic. One of the beauties of search is that you can gain visibility with relatively little risk. Unlike television or newspaper advertising, you only pay in search if the ad is clicked. This eliminates much of the risk and allows you to relax your targeting to ensure that you're capturing all the potential search traffic.
Understand the visibility dynamics of the search results page
Another source of false economy is the position you choose to occupy on the search results page. There is generally five times the interaction with ads in the top sponsored position as opposed to ads on the right rail. And in the case of Ontario Tourism, the official tourism site for the province of Ontario, this would be a site you would expect to see in the top sponsored ads for searches like Ontario vacations. By reinforcing this inherent trust with eye catchers like "official site" the Ontario tourism board would have been able to take advantage of quality scoring to reduce their bid price and maintain their top position. They would also have to use a close variation of the actual key phrase in the title to reinforce information scent. This relevance should, of course, carry through to the landing pages well. This was an area that could lead to substantially increased conversions for the Ontario Tourism Board as well.
I embarked down this path in order to wake up Canadian advertisers and hopefully make them smarter about integrating search into their strategies. It's in that spirit that I offer these suggestions for those that are looking to seriously tap into the potential of search.