Use search engine marketing as market research tool

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Most b-to-b marketers have awakened to the fact that search engine marketing can be a highly effective channel for acquiring leads. Marketers leveraging both paid and organic, or natural, search engine marketing have seen costs per lead (CPL) never before thought possible. It is not uncommon to hear of marketers with a CPL goal of $500 through traditional channels now enjoying CPL metrics of $50 or less.

Yet while search engine marketing certainly has proven to be an excellent source for leads, most b-to-b marketers are missing the boat on another potential of search: It can be an excellent market research tool.

The fundamental challenge all marketers face is getting into the minds of our target audience. What do they desire? How do they go about finding solutions to their needs? Where do they spend time? What language do they use to communicate? These are all questions that, when answered, give us a far crisper image of our target user. They are also all questions that can be answered, at least partially, by a thorough analysis of search engine marketing data.

Most search marketers view only about 10% of the data available to them. We demand to know how much we spent on our search engine efforts (either in cost-per-click charges or search engine optimization consulting), how much traffic resulted from that spend and the resulting number of conversions. From here we compute our cost per lead and determine whether search is a cost-effective channel or not. What many marketers fail to capitalize on is the wealth of data contained in our Web analytics tools.

Almost all Web reporting packages—including WebTrends, Hitbox and CoreMetrics—tell us quite a bit more information about our search users than we typically use. For example, the URL string sent by the referring search engine contains the actual search phrase that was input into the search bar. By analyzing your referring URL strings, you have access to rich, detailed data that speak volumes about your users.

What types of words are they using to find your site? Are there common misspellings that appear over and over? What supplemental words are users adding onto their search query? Looking at a month’s worth of actual search terms is a truly eye-opening experience that provides valuable market research data to share with many other stakeholders across the enterprise, including sales, customer service and product development departments.

In addition to search queries, Web reporting packages show us which portals drove keyword specific searches. Most marketers are content to evaluate their buys by determining, for instance, "Overture provided a $40 CPL" or "Google provided 30 leads this month." Because many search programs, Overture and Google included, provide search results to many different distribution points, its not always readily evident which portals drove the most qualified or targeted traffic.

The importance of looking at portal-specific traffic is that you can take these data and apply them to your other media buys. Say, for example, the keyword phrase "Web hosting" on Overture is an excellent performer and you want to buy additional, non-search media to reach more users. Leveraging your Web reporting tools is a great way of discovering that MSN was responsible for 95% of your traffic from that keyword. Perhaps a skyscraper on MSN for Web hosting would be a
logical next step in your marketing efforts.

Another very important observational research method is looking at search engine referral traffic by daypart. Most search engine marketers aggregate results weekly or at best daily. How about leveraging your reporting package to get granular with referral data to determine peak hours for referrals? This could unearth a wealth of data regarding your target audience.

Do people search for business solutions over coffee first thing in the morning, or do they do their Internet research after 5 p.m., when their direct reports and clients have gone home for the day? By analyzing daypart data we gain a deeper insight into how the target prospects interact with the medium of search. This data should be gleaned for any intelligence to plug into not only your search efforts but also to your other marketing efforts.

As marketers, we are only skimming the surface of the rich, detailed data that can be gleaned from search engine marketing efforts. Other stakeholders—such as product marketing, product development, sales and executive management—will want to learn what you uncover about your target audience. You already bought the reporting tools; now go use them.

Ron Belanger is VP-search engine marketing for Carat Interactive, Boston. He can be reached at [email protected]

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