Honda Campaign Shows Elements of Style

Search marketing has been a direct-response medium pretty much since birth, for all the now-familiar reasons: It’s highly targeted, its performance is highly measurable, and search campaigns can be micromanaged to produce the best possible return on investment (ROI). Most of all, unlike mass media buys, which always involve wasted impressions, search reaches people who are in-market and intending to buy (if not immediately, then soon.)

But the way we consume media is changing, and those changes may spill over into the way advertisers think of and use search marketing. We’re spending more time online and according to a new study, we’re not always looking to do either work or task-oriented research. On any given day, fully one-third of U.S. Internet users log on just to have fun or kill time, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

And while the Internet rises as an entertainment vehicle, the TV audience is fragmenting, thanks to TiVo and cable channels. That scenario has led some advertisers to look to the Web as a place where they can build a highly engaged relationship with prospective buyers—the same kind of branding relationship they’ve gotten from TV ads in the past.

“We’re starting to see some of our agency partners thinking very strategically and creatively about search outside of the direct-response funnel that helped fuel this industry for many years,” says Ron Belanger, senior director of global advertiser strategy and development for Yahoo! Search marketing. “Marketers are starting to look at search from a consumer-engagement standpoint and thinking beyond just shipping widgets through their Web site to consideration, awareness and message association. We’re also seeing more complex measurement paradigms out there, other than just cost per action and return on investment.”

Of course, this is a consummation devoutly to be wished by the major search engines. All of them would like to attract some of the money now budgeted for broadcast campaigns by the big branding advertisers.

So Belanger and his YSM cohorts decided it would be a useful idea to gather “the best minds from the best agencies” to share some of these innovative campaigns and perhaps run a contest for the best of the breed. “I think of it more as a showcase, really,” he says. “The spirit was simply to get the competitors in a room and all just learn from each other, in kind of a fun environment.”

Yahoo! didn’t restrict participation to branding ads, but also included direct-response campaigns if they measured effectiveness in ways other than online conversions. They got more than 25 responses from their agency partners and winnowed those down internally to what they thought were the most impressive four: The RPA campaign for the Honda Element, Avenue A/Razorfish for Chase, GM Planworks, and Agency.com for Miller Brewing.

That final quartet had 20 minutes each to present their ads and interactive strategies to a roomful of ad agencies and search marketing professionals and to answer questions from a three-judge panel, “American Idol”-style. “After the presentations, we gave every non-Yahoo! employee in the audience a voting keypad, and they selected the campaign they thought was the best,” Belanger says. The campaign with the most votes won Yahoo!’s first Search Light Award.

That winner (by a plurality Belanger will not reveal) was RPA for the Honda Element. The campaign involved an interactive game at www.elementandfriends.com that gives users a novel way to learn something about the Element’s automotive features.

“Features are boring,” says Mike Margolin, associate media director at RPA. “How do you talk about features in an emotional way, especially in a really crowded marketplace?” Obviously, by letting people pilot an Element around a digital island and interact with five different animals, each of whom shares some feature with the car: a crab, a platypus, a possum, a burro and a rabbit. They can download five commercial spots with the same creative and forward those spots to friends, and they can also link to the primary informational site for the Element.

The commercials did get some targeted placements on selected cable channels such as Comedy Central, but the intent was to avoid simply building a Web site around a freestanding ad. “We started with the idea that we would see what we wanted to say and then figure out the best channel for it,” Margolin says. “The site went live even before the commercials aired. And the final frame of the TV component directed viewers to Elementandfriends.com.”

In fact, Margolin says he can’t recall if the commercials were intended for TV from the start. The definitely served as rich media ads for online marketing, and he suspects Honda simply liked them so well that they migrated over to limited broadcast use. Still versions also were used in print ads, and limited-animation versions used for banner graphical ads on the Web.

But search engine marketing (SEM) was in RPA’s media mix from the start of this campaign. And while the keyword list for the search marketing campaign included the expected brand and model names and some standard auto terms, the offbeat nature of the message gave RPA the chance to do some novel things in the way of brand building.

“The Element is a quirky vehicle, and we wanted to get people thinking about it in a quirky way,” Margolin says. “We didn’t feel it was important to reach the in-market consumer. So instead of targeting keywords like ‘Honda Element prices’ and “Element dealers’ and other lead-generation phrases, we focused more on people that were looking to find some fun online and kill some time.”

Instead of those standard keywords, RPA placed search bids on terms that broadly matched words such as “funny”, “freaky” and “hairy”: “funny movie”, “fun commercial” and so on. They also bid on the names of the five animals in the spots. Because they sidestepped the usual in-market terms for auto SEM, the agency’s cost-per-click (CPC) prices were a fraction of the cost of those straight-ahead campaigns. (How expensive can the keyword “possum” be, anyway?)

One of the trickiest parts of blending a branding effect with a tactic as hard-edged and measurable as search marketing is to bridge the different metrics used in each. RPA accomplished that feat in its presentation by correlating the cost of a keyword with the amount of engagement that visitors coming through that term had with the site, thereby permitting a kind of return on investment calculation for this eccentric campaign. If a keyword was cost-effective but the visitor only interacted with one animal on the Web site, that made it less valuable than a slightly more costly keyword from which someone went much deeper into the site, interacting with all five animals and playing the game three times.

“We took the optimization tactics that a lot of search marketers use for selling products and generating leads online and adapted them for a branding campaign,” Margolin says. “I think that really resonated with the audience.”

Search in general will probably be a necessary marketing tool for any online campaign that contains a TV component, Margolin says, simply because most advertisers won’t want to keep the URL floating on the screen for anything near long enough to let viewers remember it unaided. Some advertisers will decide to do what Honda did and go with a URL that doesn’t include their brand name, making it even more likely that interested visitors will need help navigating to the site.

Both Margolin and Belanger believe that more big-brand advertisers will integrate their online and offline efforts using search. Margolin reports that over the campaign’s three-month life span so far (it’s still running), 40% of all referrals to the site came through the search advertising campaign.

And if consumer engagement is your goal, Belanger says, it’s hard to beat the length of time the average consumer played with the Honda Element game: 15 minutes. “That’s 30 uninterrupted 30-second TV spots,” he says. “Think about how much that would cost on TV, and the difficulty in getting people to watch even one full 30-second ad. To me, that’s a much more effective use of marketing dollars if you know your message is in front of the consumer for a much longer and more controlled period of time.”

Right now, the plan is to make the Yahoo! Search Light award an annual presentation. And Belanger says he “wouldn’t be surprised to see as many as 100 submissions next time.”

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