How SEM Agencies Can Communicate Their Value

There is much discussion among members of the search engine marketing industry on client satisfaction and imminent churn.

Simply put, it boils down to setting realistic expectations. The SEM agencies pitching with the line "we'll guarantee you top natural position in Google" may still exist, but the overall sense is that the majority of clients have become more educated, and thus expect more accountability.

Like any successful relationship, communication is key when it comes to interaction between a SEM agency and its client. According to JupiterResearch, 57 percent of SEM agency/client relationships are less than one year old. In the evolving world of SEM, now is the time to solidify the client relationships you have and be positioned to minimize churn.

How do you keep your current SEM clients happy and give your agency the best chance of benefiting from those that have been burned by the SEM snake-oil salespeople? While it's not rocket science, you may be surprised by how many SEM providers are not executing the following staples:



Be proactive. This is more than just forwarding your client the latest Forrester Research discussing the projected increase in SEM spending. You are the SEM expert and being compensated as such. You have access/insight on possible hurdles or solutions for your client's site and objectives that they may benefit from. For example, consider:

-- Is it worth tweaking a client's existing campaign in light of search engine demographic trends?
-- Are there contingency budgets for the upcoming releases of MSN and recent AskJeeves paid search platforms?
-- Can the client benefit from optimized press releases for the new relaunch you're about to support with a paid search campaign?

You want to avoid constant "reactive" situations (clients read the trade press, too), such as a client's request to implement RSS feeds or institute a corporate blog. SEM really is more than just buying keywords on Google.

Set realistic expectations. By now, your clients should know that there is no guarantee of organic listings in the SERPs (search engine results pages). Expectation-setting is an important part of the relationship and will most likely be a contributing factor for your management fees.

Performance: Decide on a fair success metric and time frame in which you feel goals can be achieved. Discuss with clients looking for a quick return via paid search any variables that may affect performance, such as seasonality, average order price, etc. Do your research.

Accessibility: Does the client expect weekly phone calls? Monthly meetings? Are you on call 24/7? Your client needs to know if you plan to charge incrementally for any advice/consulting outside of scope.

Deliverables: At the least, monthly performance reports will be expected. However, when campaigns are running full-tilt, clients sometimes feel the need for more frequent updates. Dedicated reporting centers accessible via client login may reduce staff hours. Data accessibility and frequency need to be defined.

Solidify the relationship. Provide added value. In the words of Mark Twain, "familiarity breeds contempt," so make it difficult for clients to entertain the idea of soliciting other agencies. Traditional media buyers negotiate a bonus sponsorship mention. Online media buyers get a few newsletter sponsorships thrown in as part of an overall package. Because pass-through costs are non-negotiable and the market/industry determines your fixed costs, SEM agencies have to work harder to show similar value. That 'value' may lie in knowledge and idea-sharing.

Depending on your company category (for example, boutique agency or SEM department of larger interactive agency) there is opportunity to show your value with activities such as seminars, or off-site brainstorming sessions.

Set apart some time with your client to show them your abilities outside of what you've been contracted for. You both have the same goal -- to bring success to their site and business.

If you have the resources, bring in a leader from another discipline (for example, User Experience) and discuss how executing some focus groups can provide more intelligence about how users interact with their site, resulting in possible page optimizations and keyword expansions.

Chances are if you are successful in communicating your ability and value, you will most likely gain more client respect and confidence. With that client trust, you can develop a long-standing, satisfying relationship yielding additional SEM-related revenue streams.

If these suggestions are already part of your client service repertoire, then you should be in good shape. If not, then your clients may already have a reason to start investigating other SEM providers and relationships.

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