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Sunday, February 25, 2024

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Branding, Direct Response, Intent & How Search Made Us Soft

The old has become new again. Back in the day, when setting budgets for mailing paper things in bulk to prospective customers, marketers asked themselves crucial questions. “Will the ROI of this direct response mail piece justify the investment of paper, printing, postage and fulfillment?” If not, “is the objective a more cosmic value, in other words, branding?” We knew when to sell with action calls and we knew how to brand.

The search revolution has turned some of our brains to oatmeal by fostering unrealistic expectations for contextually targeted ad space. Traditionally “search” has worked so incredibly well and cost so little that direct response marketing was feasible even for informational searches and “walk-by” contextual ads where nobody searches. Now CPC search costs a bunch more than it used to. Meanwhile Facebook and Google have stimulated a massive expansion of contextual marketing. Keep in mind that, even in the face of throwing in the search towel by cutting the now famed MicroHoo deal, Yahoo still runs a massive portfolio of contextual products. There are many more publishers selling banners of all sizes and formats selling display than there are search engines. Contextual ads are where the massive numbers of eyeballs are.

First the good news: search marketing still works wonderfully for direct response. Sure, care needs to be taken that the queries we invest in are transactional. For instance, those searching for “surgery” are less targeted for direct response that users seeking “surgeon.” “Surgeon” has a reasonable chance of being informational in nature. The theory is obvious. While “surgery” inquiries might be in the purchase funnel, anyone who searches for “surgeon” is in or closer to the buying-phase and may well be trying to find an appropriate doctor for an upcoming operation.

Timeless marketing values

Back in the day, we wouldn’t send postcards to 4 year olds offering an operator-standing-by 800 number to buy wheelchair scooters or free Sudafed samples. I can’t imagine we would have allocated direct response dollars to next-week’s Mickey-D happy meal coupons sent to inmates incarcerated at the local SuperMax. The investment clearly wouldn’t jive with ROI expectations for direct response in such cases.

Still, most of us were well aware of benefits associated with branding. While direct response was not obviously attainable, we might have asked KFC to sponsor a library program at that same SuperMax for prisoners about to be released. Sure, it would be months until these rehabilitated society members were in a position to actually pony up a 10-spot to purchase an extra crispy meal with coleslaw. However the goodness embodied in the contribution to the prison’s library, in tandem with repeated impressions of the logo and pictures of tasty chicken wings, could influence our target market to think favorably of the KFC brand later. We used to call this kind of marketing “branding.” Remember?

The miracle of search made quantifiable return on investment a reality at a very low cost for early adopters. Even today, direct response search, well targeted and segmented by intent, can be an excellent dollar for dollar value. Don’t get me wrong. Contextual advertising as in Google’s storied content network, AOL or Facebook Ads can often generate direct response sales. But often contextual ad networks are better suited for branding. You remember branding, right? The savvy marketer has the wisdom to know the difference.

Seeking intent in social segments

Because contextual marketing targets demographic attributes as opposed to answering direct questions, gleaning intent is different than classic keyword marketing as suggested above. For instance it’s fertile direct response territory for AARP to run banner ads in Facebook to 64 year olds offering benefits upon retirement. Likewise serving banners to Forbes magazine readers, filtered by technical terms related to investment vehicles, might be a reasonable place to drive responses.

By contrast, an orthopedic surgeon in Duluth, Minnesota might buy Facebook Ads to be shown to every local user who likes “soccer, playing soccer, playing soccer with my daughter, watching my son play soccer,” etc. The goal would not be direct response in this case, but rather an inexpensive way to remain top of mind in the soccer mom and dad community in Duluth, in case their child ever needs surgery. We still call this branding.

Great ROI for direct response successes in search spoiled us big time. Heck, search engine marketing has been so very effective that even contextual networks yielded plenty of direct response, even in traditional branding spaces. However more and more the gazillions of impressions available in contextual space, especially socially targeted, are making brand marketers drool.

Choose thy KPI well

It’s important for brand managers to have realistic expectations. Don’t be afraid to brand in contextual space. It’s crucial to establish realistic goals and get stakeholders (like your boss) to buy in. That .002 % CTR and .6% conversion rate looks much different in light of branding expectations. Don’t miss opportunities to define demographic segments as promising for direct response. Above all, don’t be seduced by the glamor and specificity of direct response search.

When I first started my marketing career, we had to make decisions regarding the likelihood of ROI from direct response marketing. When no direct response pathways were reasonably predictable, we reached for the branding option. These days social PPC and other contextual networks offer excellent CPM values for branding applications. The old has become new again. For many marketers, it’s time to get back to basics.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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