Search: The Boon Or Bane Of B2B Marketers?

Optify recently released its 2012 B2B marketing Benchmark Report. While reading the executive summary, two apparently conflicting points jumped out at me: “Google is the single most important referring domain to B2B websites, responsible for over 36% of all visits.”

And: “Paid search usage showed a constant decline among B2B marketers in 2012. Over 10% of companies in the report discontinued their paid search campaigns during 2012.”

OK, what gives? How can search be the single most important referrer of traffic, yet fail so miserably as a marketing channel that many B2B marketers have thrown in the towel?

The fact is, B2B search is a dramatically different beast, and many of the unique nuances that come with it are likely to lead to the apparent paradox that the Optify study unearthed. Here are some possible reasons for the anomaly:

B2B search has a really, really long tail. Many B2B marketers are dealing with a huge variety of SKUs, with a broader distribution of traffic across keywords than is typical in most consumer categories. This makes keyword discovery a monumental task. But more than this, the revenue per managed keyword (assuming you can accurately measure revenue -- more on this below) is quite often very small. This creates a cost-of-campaign management issue.

When the “long tail” of search was first introduced, many search marketers embraced it as a cost-effective way to manage campaigns. The assumption was that long-tail queries, being quite specific, would yield higher ROI than shorter, more generic queries. And while the traffic (and subsequent revenue) per keyword would be very small, cumulatively a long-tail campaign could deliver impressive returns.

This is true, up to a point. But long-tail campaigns require significant administrative overhead. A query that gets one search a month requires as much set-up as one that gets 1,500 searches a month. Even if you use broad match, you’re constantly tweaking your negative match list to filter out the low-value traffic.

While a long-tail approach seems like a good idea in theory, in practice most marketers end up culling most of the long-tail keywords from the campaign because the returns just aren’t worth the ongoing effort.  This would not bode well for B2B marketers considering search as a channel.

A B2B search vocabulary is difficult to define. Compounding the long-tail problem is the issue that many B2B vendors sell complex products or services. With complexity comes ambiguity in language. It’s hard to pin many B2B products down to an obvious search phrase you can be sure searchers would use. Often, many B2B prospects only know they have a problem, not what the possible solution might be called. This makes it very difficult to create an effective search campaign. There is a lot of trial and error involved.

And, because prospects aren’t searching for a familiar product from vendors they know, it becomes even more difficult to create a compelling search ad that attracts its fair share of searches and subsequent conversions. In a marketing channel that depends on words to interpret buying intent, ill-defined vocabularies can make a marketer’s job exponentially more difficult.

B2B ROI has to be measured differently. Finally, let’s say you get past the first two obstacles. Ultimately, search campaigns live and die on their effectiveness. And this requires a comprehensive approach to performance measurement. As any B2B marketer will tell you, this is much easier said than done. B2B markets tend to be more circuitous than consumer markets, winding their way through several stops in an extended value change. This makes end-to-end tracking extremely difficult.  And if value isn’t easily measured, search campaigns can’t prove their value. This makes them likely candidates for an unceremonious axing.

So if That’s the Bad News, What’s the Good?

If the deck is stacked so fully against search in the B2B world, why was Google the primary referrer of traffic in the Optify study? Well, search for B2B can be tremendously effective; it’s just hard to predict. This makes B2B a prime candidate for a broad-based SEO effort. Content creation creates a rich bed of long-tail fodder that search spiders love. Organic best practices combined with a dedication to thought leadership can create content that intercepts those prospects looking for a solution to their identified pains, even before they know what they’re looking for.

In the case of B2B, especially in complex, nascent markets, I generally recommend leading with SEO and content development. Then, monitor search traffic and let that help inform your subsequent PPC efforts. It may turn out that paid search isn’t a major play for your market. The B2B Beast can be tamed by search; it just takes a different approach.

Tags: b2b, search
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1 comment about "Search: The Boon Or Bane Of B2B Marketers?".
  1. Tom Pick from KC Associates , February 21, 2013 at 8:03 p.m.
    Insightful post Gord, but a few points: first, Google is indeed one of the most if the most significant driver of traffic and leads for b2b companies that are doing things right. But if only 36% of their traffic is coming from Google, they probably aren't doing things right. Second, AdWords can be a very valuable source of traffic and leads, particularly for highly competitive, tough-to-organically-optimize-for terms. And you are correct that "It’s hard to pin many B2B products down to an obvious search phrase you can be sure searchers would use. Often, many B2B prospects only know they have a problem, not what the possible solution might be called." The answer to that challenge is not to give up, but to TEST. Yes, for low-volume terms it can several months to generate sufficient data for decision making, but overall the cost for such terms is fairly low while the potential payoff is quite high.