Commentary

Breaking Through the Paid Search Glut

With all the coverage about possible keyword inventory shortages in paid search, one question seldom asked is, "If there's overcrowding, and your company still finds value in paid search, how are you going to stand out?"

Take a step back and think of this from the end user's experience.

A search engine user goes to Google's home page and clicks "search," and in less than a second, a page of results appears with 600 to 700 words (it's fewer for terms with no keyword advertisers). Looking at this with fresh eyes, it's amazing how efficient people are at finding what they want on the results page. Try it yourself - search for a popular and ad-friendly term such as "mortgage," and glance at the results without reading them.

On page one alone, there's a massive amount of information, and yet users manage to decide within seconds whether to click on one of the 10 natural results, the 10 sponsored listings, or the links to the news results. If the user's still not satisfied, he or she will pursue alternative options - moving on to page two, refining the search, trying another search engine, entering a URL directly, or shutting down the computer and watching "Da Ali G Show."

Two things should be clear right now: standing out is critical, and copywriters working on keyword ads are woefully underpaid.

Drilling down further on the sponsored side, look at the content of the ads. Searching for a consumer electronics product, three of nine ads displayed offer free shipping, and four tout price comparisons. Another search for flights from New York to Japan brings up a slew of ads with similar hooks - namely, compare prices and/or save money. Searching for "baseball memorabilia" in Yahoo! brings up four ads on top, the first three of which all share the search query itself as the headline in big, bold type.

The fault doesn't lie with the copywriters. This column comes out to roughly 750 words, while search ad copywriters are usually confined to about 10, plus a brief headline. They need to make every character count. A number of them are extraordinarily good; even in the examples above, several ads are so sharp that the writers make it look easy.

Even the best copywriters need every bit of help they can get. If a site offers free shipping, hassle-free returns, buy one get one free, warehouse sales, or anything else to attract consumers' attention, copywriters will use it.

While the current situation presents a sea of clutter, the future is about breaking through. One company working on this is TakeONE Marketing Group, offering ClickSMART Rewards with the tag line "providing the incentive to click." TakeONE's clients select rewards valued at anywhere from under a buck to hundreds of dollars and use them to encourage consumers to take a specific action. Consider it a pay-per-click search campaign with a cost-per-action setup to carry it home.

TakeONE is not the only promotions company out there, but it is a pioneer in pooling its resources to tackle a very real challenge in the search space. As an example, imagine an airline wanting to boost business for its coast-to-coast flights. The airline buys keyword ads for a slew of relevant phrases. Instead of using copy such as "low airfare" and "book now," the airline teams with TakeONE and offers a $50 Marriott gift card for every customer who registers and books a flight through the ad. The airline only pays TakeONE for the customers who complete the transaction. The customer then submits the reward form to TakeONE for fulfillment.

Obviously, the return on investment is still paramount. If the reward offer depletes the profits, then the marketer needs to reevaluate the campaign. But in many scenarios, it could be very cost efficient.

Consider a marketer who bids $5 for a top keyword. For every 100 clicks (total spent: $500), he converts 10 (acquisition cost: $50 per customer). The customers spend an average of $75, delivering a $250 net, or an ROI of 1.5. Not bad.

In the alternative scenario, the marketer tries ClickSMART Rewards. There is less concern about top placement, so he sets the max bid at $3, with a $5 reward. For every 100 clicks (total spent: $300), he converts 15 thanks to the giveaway (total acquisition cost, including reward: $25 per customer). If the acquired customers' average spending is the same amount, it's a $750 profit. In this example, a $20 reward still leads to a $525 profit. Yes, these are hypothetical, but they illustrate that if marketers do the math, the added expense may pay dividends later.

Some companies may think about doing rewards themselves, and indeed TakeONE president & CEO Chuck Seidman mentioned examples from the travel sector where companies have run such campaigns. While Seidman is glad to see others validating this model, he notes it takes quite a bit of work to do the project in-house, with the campaign requiring coding, graphic design, negotiating the offer, and fulfilling the rewards. That's not even including search engine marketing.

TakeONE should be in good company before long, as advertisers constantly focus on breaking through. Any innovation is good news, so keep it coming.

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