Setting Up Your Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Strategy

By Hayley Cummings | @Hanapin | Associate Director of Paid Search at Hanapin Marketing

Usually as agencies we come across established digital clients, clients who have been in advertising for a very long time. They have spent a lot of dollars to promote their brand, products and services. Every once in a while, we come across a client that is not active in the digital space. If this sounds like you, don’t worry, we’re going to walk you through the steps to figuring all this out. We are going to answer the question, ‘What is SEM?’ and discuss how paid search fits within your digital strategy.


Website Considerations


First, do you have a website? If you do, just check out questions 1-3 below and make sure you are considering each. If not, let’s first discuss some of the things that you know you will need in order to build this website. A good web developer or a freelance web developer should be the first step. Figure out who you will hire that will have the capabilities to build a website that is worthy of your brand.


Remember, for many people your website is how your brand will be judged. A first impression is very important. Is it sleek, modern, colorful, simple? Is it easy to understand? Is the consumer able to do what you need them to? All of these items need to be thought about and carefully researched before putting a website together. Once you understand this, convey the vision to the web developer.


Your vision includes explaining the actions that you’d like the consumer to take. While it is important to convey your brand messaging, benefits and features, you will also want to make sure you do not distract them from converting.


Finally you will want to make sure you site it tagged with all the necessary tracking tags. Tracking includes all actions and events, and especially the page that signifies a completed conversion. This page is usually a thank you or order confirmation page. Whether you are using Analytics or another form of tagging, making sure you are set up for success, or better yet, set up to measure success will make all of the next steps worth it.


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Develop Your Digital Strategy


Once you’ve figured your site out, you can confidently say you have established a digital footprint and started to develop your digital strategy. Paid search plays into your larger digital strategy and it becomes very important that you can measure the traffic from organic and direct sources as well.


You’ll also want to understand how your digital strategy can align and integrate with your off-line strategy. An example of capitalizing on what is happening off-line would be if your client were doing a TV commercial during the Super Bowl. You will want to make sure that you have ample amounts of budget to cover all of those branded searches that will likely happen during and shortly after.


Now you can move onto the second step. Make sure that you understand what the current level of brand awareness looks like. Within paid search, this could make or break your first delve into the SEM world. Remember, paid search is a ‘pull’ vehicle. The consumer is telling us what they want, and we hand it over in the form of an ad. There are some instances where we can reach the consumers while they are reading about similar content within the Display Network, or follow them based on where they have been previously, but they have still taken some action that identified them as a target.


There is the possibility to create a display ad and target it to everyone, everywhere, but why would you want to do that? We are really answering to the need or want that they’re telling us they have or we are predicting they will have, based on their online behavior. Your digital strategy and the success of it will be based on your understanding of what your consumer knows about your product today and what they are doing offline prior to researching or converting online.


If you understand the level of brand awareness you have today, you’ll be able to understand how to approach your first attempt at paid search. I say this because more and more advertisers are turning to paid search to promote their business. It’s becoming more and more expensive to compete. Your competitors are already there so make sure that you understand where you can compete on a cost effective level.


To take advantage of that cost effective traffic, you will need to lean on your brand keywords. We call this low hanging fruit. If you have a lot of brand awareness, you can move right into creating your PPC campaigns. Start with branded keywords and extend from there. Move into your core non-branded keywords and try to cover at least exact and broad match to start. The reason it is OK for you to skip phrase is because you will have you brand traffic garnering the low CPCs and you will not have to manage spend on the same level of a brand with no or little brand awareness, as they are limited to the competitive non-brand terms.


On the other end, if you have no brand awareness, and your product is brand-new or unknown, it’s going to be very important that you figure out how to make people aware of your product. You will need to become part of their consideration set. Your priorities will differ from those that have strong brand awareness. If your brand is strong in one area or DMA (designated marketing area) but not much elsewhere, or if it just differs greatly based on location, figure out where your brand awareness is the strongest, and take advantage of that first. Meaning geo-target your campaigns to these areas and then branch out from there. If you don’t know, you’ll need to do some research. Find out where you’re making sales. Find out where concentrations of your customers live (states/cities). If you don’t have access to that information, reach out to the right individuals who can get it for you. After that we can figure out where you can roll paid search building upon that brand of traffic and where you will need to use paid search to build that awareness.


A big part of building awareness, whether you’ve got it right now, you need it, or you need more of it, is partaking in the Display Network. This requires you to understand who your customers are and what they are doing online We call this information a persona. This will include your customers’ average age, income, education level, likes dislikes and even the life story. Your persona should be part analytics and part creative. Understanding who they are will help you understand where they will be online.


Also understanding what causes this specific customer to need or want your product becomes important when predicting where they will be when they start their online journey. Some examples of life changes or events that could spur a purchase or interest would be:


  • Buying a new house
  • Shopping for Christmas gifts
  • Looking to service a car


Understanding these pre-purchase events will help you develop a hypothesis about the pattern of activity leading up to a purchase. This behavior may span over the course of two minutes or two months depending on the sales cycle of your product. For example, if you’re buying an appliance you may research your decision for a month prior to making a decision. If you’re trying to figure out which restaurant to visit during a road trip, it may only take a couple minutes to figure out your best option in your area.


Your next step will be understanding how the consumer will most likely come into contact with your product or service. Meaning, you will want to figure out which devices they’re using. In my previous example of the traveler searching for a local restaurant, they would likely be utilizing a mobile device. However, the appliance example could be a combination mobile device, tablet and desktop. This will help you to further craft your digital strategy. You will also understand what needs to be done to your website in order to make it compatible with these devices.


Now that you understand what your digital strategy will look like now you’ll need to define how SEM will play into it. If you are new to paid search you may be wondering, what is SEM? SEM means search engine marketing. Paid search is a part of SEM. Due to the ever-evolving nature of our industry, finding an accurate definition of what constitutes SEM is a bit difficult. However, I will do my best. Here it goes…


SEM as it relates to paid search is any digital campaign utilizing an auction and a cost per click bid(s) to show your ads.


Bids can be placed at the keyword, ad group or placement level. On Google and Bing, the most traditional forms of paid search, you will use bids for both the Display Network and the SERP (search engine results page) and the auction will determine, based on your bid and your quality score, what position your ads will show in.


Now that you understand what is needed for your website, how to craft your digital strategy, and what constitutes SEM, you can start to build your paid search campaigns. Start by doing some keyword research. Once you have your core list you can use the keyword planning tool in AdWords or any other free tool and see how much those keywords will cost based on the position you are looking for. You will not have the quality score to factor in at this point, but this should give you an idea of what to expect. Again without that brand awareness you will need to focus on the non-brand terms when it comes to driving traffic to the site. These will be more expensive.


Now, let’s get on the same page. This means everyone… your team, your boss, your agency and all of the people who will be impacted by this campaign know ‘the deal’. This is going to be an investment, both with your time and money. So it’s important to set everyone’s expectation when it comes to the paid search campaigns.


Ask yourself and your team the following questions:


  1. When do we become profitable?
  2. When are we just breaking even?
  3. When do we pull the plug?
  4. What is the threshold for spending too much with no yield?
  5. Are we willing to test without an immediate return?
  6. Are all parties involved aware of the risks of the test as well as the goal?


Your goal will be based on some of the areas we discussed when covering your digital strategy. For example, if you have no brand awareness your goal should not be to drive the most cost-effective cost per lead (CPL), because you do not have the brand keywords to fall back on. The risk in this case, is that you will spend money acquiring visitors and being aggressive for a month or a quarter to collect those visitors with the goal to retarget them later. That would be the goal. Not the CPL.


If you have brand awareness, you can have a CPL goal. It is likely your customers have been searching for you for a very long time, and you were just missing out. Jump into paid search with a solid account structure and a well-optimized site and start to measure your performance.


Make sure that you are setup to report every action, event, and conversion.


An agency or in-house PPC team is only as good as the goals you give them. If you know your goal is not realistic, revise it. Setting an unrealistic goal that is too aggressive will only lead to a loss of acquisition and/or revenue for the business and the breakdown of the relationship between the two parties.


Final Thoughts


Once you have a goal in mind start to build out your plan over the course of twelve, six or three months. Whatever you feel comfortable with. Make sure the PPC team has a timeline and plan in place in order to make sure you are working towards that that goal. At the end of the test you will feel confident that you’ve done everything you can to make your paid search campaign a success. Work with your agency and/or in-house team to create this plan and make sure that your timelines are reasonable. If you are doing it yourself visit the following links below to help you start your campaigns based on best practices. Good luck!