Taking Search Marketing into the Red Zone

(Searchline) So you’ve got your search marketing program up and running, and it’s ticking over smoothly, like a well-tuned family car. Now it’s time to turbocharge that sucker. But how do you turn that sensible sedan into a road rocket?

That was the problem faced in the last few years by Eckler’s, which started life as a one-man auto body shop in 1963 and has grown a multimillion-dollar distributor of accessories and aftermarket parts for Corvettes, classic Chevys, Chevy trucks, and Camaros.

The business runs almost entirely on the Web these days. But when the company opened its first site back in the ‘90s, the aim was humble: to capture a few requests for print catalogs. That’s all different now: Eckler’s runs five separate Websites for its five car categories and uses the Internet to offers 20,000 SKUs for its Corvette business alone.

E-commerce had proven such a fertile growth medium, in fact, that Eckler’s had no problem finding the will to jump into search marketing early on, says sales and marketing vice president Michael Wilson. “When we began using search marketing a couple of years ago, we started with 250 keywords,” Wilson says. “We put them up using overture and thought the results were pretty interesting, and that we were doing pretty well.”

But with maturity comes wisdom, and as Eckler’s kept running its search marketing program in its original form, the company began to see that it was leaving lots of money on the table. “We realized that we weren’t even beginning to tap the potential there,” Wilson says. All those original keywords were Corvette brand-related terms, with few general terms. That worked to reduce the number of unqualified buyers who might be looking for a side mirror but not a Corvette side mirror; but it also limited the reach of Eckler’s search ads to those prospects who happened to enter “Corvette” as a search term in the query box.

Marketers can get around those problems of too-broad keywords with negative keyword matching, of course. But on its own, the company did not know how to work with negative keywords and didn’t have the luxury of time to learn. “Once we started having some success with our minuscule spend on search terms, we realized that if we were going to ramp up to 50,000 or 100,000 keywords such as other people were using, there was no way we could keep up with the bidding, or modifying the keyword lists,” Wilson says. “We knew we didn’t have the skill, the experience or the manpower.”

And there were other problems: Eckler’s knew that the conversions those relatively few keywords were producing could be greatly improved. That meant that its return on ad spend also had plenty of room to grow—if the company could only figure out which way to head with its search marketing strategy.

So eight months ago, the company interviewed several third-party search marketing management firms before opting to go with Coremetrics Search Marketing Services, replacing an independent contractor it had retained briefly. “We realized [Coremetrics] might not be the least expensive route, but that it was the best fit for us from the standpoint of a working relationship,” Wilson says.

Eckler’s situation was not unique, says John Squire, vice president of product strategy/general manager of marketing services at Coremetrics. The company had tried search using the logical, product-specific keywords that their customers were most likely to search for. Now it wanted to expand that base into the proverbial long tail, specifically for the Corvette product line.

The tune-up process started with an examination of the actual searching and selling that was being done on the Eckler’s Corvette site, to determine what customers were most often looking for and to see if Coremetrics and Eckler’s together could pinpoint some niche products or categories that might produce strong conversion at a low cost per click.

“When we realized that they had only 250 keywords and 21,000 items available on their site, we saw an opportunity for them to buy as many as 100,000 keywords,” Squire says. “Of those, the head terms will produce the majority of sales and produce really high returns. But it’s really a trick to see what’s out there in the tail and pick those terms that may only get three or four clicks every couple of weeks but can turn into really big sales.”

Coremetrics also tinkered with match types for Eckler’s keyword campaigns. All of Eckler’s original terms were in broad match type, Squire says, which matches all keywords in any order and disregards the presence of extra words in the query. Coremetrics realized upon analysis that Eckler’s wasn’t taking proper advantage of the other positive match types available to it: either exact match (only the specified keywords in specific order, with no extras) or phrase match (keywords in order but with other words allowed). For example, many of the visitors coming to the site on the broad term “B&B exhaust systems” were actually in search of a bed-and-breakfast getaway.

Coremetrics also quickly realized that a large set of the keywords Eckler’s was using needed to be culled down through negative matching. All told, Eckler’s is now bidding actively on 25,000 keywords for its Corvette product line.

Another task was souping up the ad copy used in Eckler’s SEM campaigns. “While their ads talked about the size of their product offering, it didn’t sell the value proposition: their expertise, their customer satisfaction, or longevity in the business, all the branding aspects of the ads. But also for each specific part, we wanted to tell why they would be the right retailer to provide that service out to this client base.”

And finally, Coremetrics went to work on the landing pages for the ads, to make sure customers were being brought into the site at points that satisfied their search needs but also gave them enough broad information about a category to allow Eckler’s to upsell.

“When most marketers start out using search ads, they try to land visitors either on the home page or deep down in the site on a specific part,” Squire says. “But if you come in looking for a class of products, the category page is going to work well as a landing if your ad copy talks about sets of products rather than specific items.” That can provide benefits if the visitor is in a mood to browse for purchase ideas—something loyal Corvette owners often do, Wilson says.

“If someone comes in looking for that B&B exhaust system, you may want to land them on a page that also points out the CORSA exhaust and then tell them, ‘You don’t only have to buy B&B, but let us tell you why that might be the right choice for that car you’re restoring right now,’” Squire says.

Effort spent on getting those fundamentals right is ultimately more productive than endless debates about whether to bid 36 cents or 38 cents on a specific keyword. “If we figure out how to help Eckler’s improve their landing pages, that opens the top of the purchase funnel, and we can start considering bidding $1.50 or $1.70 for keywords,” Squire says. “We get out of the trap of playing with pennies when we start asking how we can convert people better.”

And that time up on the rack has paid off big time for Eckler’s Corvette search marketing, to judge by the results: Better than a 600% increase in online orders to the site, and a revenue boost of almost 550%. On Google search ads specifically, Wilson reports that clickthrough rates increased 623%, producing a healthy sales jump of 3,737%.

“To me the most important success metric is return on advertising spend,” Wilson says. “When we started out search marketing, we thought we were doing pretty well on that. But now after working with Coremetrics, we’re getting three and four times our old return.” He’s already invited Coremetrics to take on search marketing duties for some of Eckler’s other Web sites and lines of business.

To other marketers considering bringing in outside help for their SEM efforts, Wilson has a word of advice: Keep your smartest inhouse people closely involved in the search marketing process.

“We run our business by brands, and we have separate managers for our Corvette business, our classic Chevy and Camaro businesses,” he says. “Our brand managers are experts in their particular cars. They know how many were built in a given year, how many had six cylinders or eight, how many had 355 gears or black interiors. They’ve got those details out the kazoo. And when we marry that knowledge with Coremetrics’ expertise in bidding on keywords, that’s a good marriage.”

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