Search as a Branding Channel

Search — and online media in general — just can’t win.

On one hand, it’s effective and extremely trackable. For every dollar you spend in media costs, you can track it back to the exact source to discover what it directly drove down to the penny.

On the other hand, it’s effective and extremely trackable, so you’re expected to do just that, and in ways that other media with 10 times the associated costs can’t, nor would ever dream of trying.

Online marketers are held to a different standard than their traditional brethren. Want to spend a few more thousand dollars to max out your PPC spend, which will ultimately drive highly-targeted traffic directly to a page with the products they’re looking for? Well, only if you can prove the ROI ahead of time. Meanwhile, an agency can spend another million on TV airtime for an ad that doesn’t even mention the name of a product?

And SEO has it even tougher. It’s catching somewhere north of 70 percent of the clicks on any given search page. Yet, with no ability to directly track improvements to results, SEO swiftly goes from a no-brainer in the eyes of the e-commerce department, to a no-go in finance.

Progressively over the years, people have cut back their time in front of the TV, spending less time reading print, and allocating more of that time online. And yet, while online advertising spend is growing, it’s not increasing anywhere near the rate that people are moving their leisure time to online channels.

The reason? In many cases, it comes down to one word: branding.

Brands spend countless dollars promoting their product to build up the top end of their funnel. This often happens with no hope or even thought of what ROI or increased audience size will come from it, while efforts further down the line are expected to reach their ROI goal, and also prove that they’re growing business.

Brand exposure is absolutely important. Creating awareness of your brand for those who don’t know you is what creates new business, and reminding those who are aware of you that you still exist is frequently what closes sales. Widening the purchase funnel at the top is a critical part of your business, which is why you should also consider your search efforts to be an extension of your branding efforts — from both a strategic and ROI standpoint.

It’s true that search isn’t a true top-of-funnel medium. You don’t arrive at the front page of a search engine and immediately get served an ad (well, not a search ad anyway). A shopper has to take the impetus to search for something to trigger an ad or a natural placement.

However, the volume of traffic searching for a given topic, and thus the size of the specific audience you can reach, can absolutely hit traditional media levels. For example, the term “women’s shoes” was in the neighborhood of 9 million searches just in the United States in September, and that’s without considering what could have been accomplished with a contextual ad for the same term. “Time” magazine’s weekly circulation, for comparison, is about 3.4 million and falling.

Now, from an ROI standpoint, you might not be able to invest in showing up highly ranked for a keyword that broad in paid search ads. Chances are that someone who clicks through is going to need more research before purchasing.

However, from a branding standpoint, the shoe fits perfectly. Put your brand in front of 9 million people a month who are interested in your products, and only pay if they react to your ad? Yes, please!

It’s the Golden Fleece of media buys: High visibility with a low CPM and little waste circulation. And with some additional attribution tracking in the background, you can still see what an investment of this kind ultimately nets you, unlike many other branding efforts.

Some companies are approaching this opportunity by setting lower ROI expectations for this portion of their spend. Others are investing in these keywords and contextual ad campaigns without even looking at ROI. While another percentage are paying for the branded portion of their campaigns out of branding’s budget, and using the rest to pursue new, non-brand customers more aggressively.

How your brand can and should approach it depends on your situation. This holiday season is deemed one of the most critical in decades and it’s unquestionably already underway. Therefore, missing out on the opportunity to expose your brand to millions of targeted, potential buyers for want of a few percentage points of your overall branding budget shouldn’t be considered an option.

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