You Got Branding in My Search Marketing!

At a Search Engine Strategies session in New York earlier this month, Jonathan Mendez, e-marketing director for interactive agency DigitalGrit, started out by asking a packed room if anyone in the audience believed that brand advertising and search marketing couldn’t be integrated.

Three, maybe four hands rose.

“That was great, from my perspective,” he said later. “I was not expecting that. Really a surprise.”

It also meant he didn’t have to unpack his ammunition. Mendez came equipped with research to show that users find and then buy brand names though search. It’s a hot topic now, after years spent working under the assumption that search marketing was pretty exclusively a direct-response medium useful only to those looking to sell or convert online.

That’s becoming less and less accepted, especially among the brand names themselves. The SES NY panels offered a number of case studies of brand marketers who had buttressed their TV, print or display ad efforts with search engine marketing and reaped the benefits.

And studies to suggest search’s power to create brand awareness were flying thick and fast. Most notably, research done earlier this year by Yahoo! Search and the National American Testing Organization found that half of a sample group of “fashion-forward” teens ages 15 to 19 used the Internet to shop for and find brands of clothing, accessories, jewelry and shoes and turn to search more than to TV spots or fashion Web sites to get information on new products.

The teens in this study considered search of equal value to magazines as a way to discover new brands, Mendez says, and that’s why brand advertisers who want to reach this group should be thinking about their presence in search, in both paid and organic forms.

That seems to contradict the popular conception of search as a goal-oriented activity—something you do to find out more about something you’re already aware of, not to discover it for the first time. But Mendez says that search is not passive; every search has a goal. And for increasing numbers of people, discovery is one possible goal of search.

“The general search can be on a keyword high in the purchase funnel, like ‘jeans’ or pocketbooks’,” he says. “That’s where the discovery takes place, and where the branding opportunity is. If I get some prominent positioning on a keyword like ‘jeans’, then even if I’ve got a small site, then rest assured I’m going to raise awareness of my brand among a good number of those searchers. I’m going to get a lot of impressions and a large number of clicks.”

And the opportunity is not just for purveyors of goods targeted at pre-teen girls, Mendez says. Digital Grit’s client roster includes blue-chip brand names in a wide range of verticals, from financial services and pharmaceuticals to consumer goods and technology

Mendez knows whereof he speaks. Years before coming to DigitalGrit, he started a direct-response health and nutrition company that launched and built its brand totally online. Accomplishing that by the use of general or “high-funnel” keywords was a budget necessity for that start-up; but Mendez says it worked, and can work for a lot of businesses at almost any stage of maturity.

He does admit, however, that both natural optimization and paid search ads were easier to manage back in 1998. “But the big boys can still play in those games,” he says. “And there’s no reason they shouldn’t be doing search to build brand awareness and ultimately to get customers.”

To illustrate, Mendez showed the SES crowd an online campaign his firm had done for a new line of Wi-Fi equipped Sony Vaio notebook computers. DigitalGrit’s portion of the campaign included both media buys of display ads on sites like CNN and and a search marketing initiative. The landing pages for both channels were the same, a single page that was heavy on information and very light on a direct call to action; users had nowhere to click to buy the laptop or even to get more information.

“They weren’t trying to sell anything, just to create some buzz about the new product,” Mendez said. “Our metrics for measuring success were impressions and clicks; that was it.” Keywords used in the search campaign were general rather than branded to Sony or Vaio: “bluetooth laptops”, “wireless computers”, “notebook” and “pc entertainment”, for example. Ad messaging was also kept consistent across the channels, with virtually the same text in the banners and text ads. In budget terms, 83% of spending on the Vaio campaign went into media buys for display ads, while 17% went to search, Mendez says.

That’s what makes the results of the campaigns so interesting. While impressions of the Sony ads tracked pretty closely with spending (86% from media, 14% from search), the clickthroughs from search outpaced the banners 54% to 46%, Mendez says.

“Searchers are motivated when they get to the goal of the results page,” he says. “If the brand is there, if it’s visible, some of them are going to click on that ad.”

DigitalGrit took the metrics for that campaign one step further than the client required and figured out the proportion of online orders that came from each of the channels. According to their findings, 88% of the orders Sony received for he product during that campaign were from visitors who had come in through a search ad, compared to 12% from the media advertising. Calculating from that metric, he says, means that the cost per order from search was 35 times less to Sony than the cost per order from display ads.

“The ultimate goal of any kind of advertising, including branding, is to be on the consumers’ minds when they’re purchasing products in your category,” Mendez says. In this 24/7 online culture, the best kind of branding or buzz marketing is to get the product out into consumers’ hands so they can talk it up to their friends.

Ultimately, branding and search can be made to work together synergistically, so that stepping up a branding campaign outside of search marketing can have an echo effect and increase the number of searches done for a brand. In his presentation, Mendez pointed to another Sony campaign for digital cameras in which search impressions for the camera make and model virtually doubled about two days after the display ad campaign began.

To Mendez, that’s an indication that search can be made to interoperate seamlessly with non-search forms of marketing. “That media buy is actually creating these search impressions for us,” he says. “So we’re generating these user actions, and then we’re there at the moment the user takes action. That’s exciting for a marketer.

“Even within the context of branding, search can be a medium for customer acquisition,” he says. “I think what we see in search is the opportunity to send that brand message at the single opportune moment—something we’ve never been able to do as marketers as effectively as we can now.”