Search strategies should be more than data dumps

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Business-to-business ad spending on the Internet will come close to $2 billion this year and will continue to grow by double-digit percentages through 2010, according to the latest forecast from Veronis Suhler Stevenson. Emarketer estimates that up to 40% of the average online marketing budget goes to search marketing, and that figure is borne out by recent Nielsen//NetRatings data for online ad impressions in the b-to-b category. So what are marketers getting for their money?

A ton of data, but not necessarily a ton of insight into what it all means. Sure, you’ll be able to calculate the number of leads that are generated, the cost per lead and the lead conversion ratios. But without determining which metrics are most important to driving profitable growth, you could wind up declaring victory when Web site traffic grows—even as the amount of time each visitor spends on the site declines.

Survey after survey shows b-to-b marketers are keenly focused on lead generation and customer acquisition as their main goals, while brand awareness and customer retention get far less attention. A recent Forrester Research study shows that “improving lead quality” was the top priority of business marketers, with 34% of the 252 respondents, while 27% focused on “increasing lead volume.” Far lower in importance—that is, rating in single-digit percentages—were “analyzing closed deals to improve lead criteria” (8%), “measuring the productivity of lead sources” (8%), “improving sales follow-up rates” and defining what makes a lead “qualified” in the first place, (6% of respondents), respectively.

To accomplish those goals, marketers are boosting search engine marketing and/or optimization efforts. The data show they are on the right track: In the U.S., 85% of business executives use search engines, according to Gartner Inc., and a similar penetration rate of 86%, encompassing all Internet users, was found in the European Union by researcher Synovate. Cost per acquisition is far cheaper for Internet search, $8.50 per customer, than for either display ads ($50) or e-mail ($60), according to Piper Jaffray & Co.

Being high up in the search listings is important for lead generation but also brings branding benefits. Top listings still represent “top brands” in the minds of searchers, according to an iProspect survey; regardless of whether the results were paid or natural, 36% of searchers assumed the first results represented the best of breed.

So thinking creatively when buying keywords is the key to success. Go beyond buying your brand name or product phrase and use the kinds of phrases prospects are likely to type into the search engine box if they’re not already familiar with your product or company. Also, there is a heavy emphasis on generic search terms up until the last search session. Given that b-to-b products and services entail a long sales cycle, marketers would do well to buy up lots of broader category terms.

Finally, in dealing with ad agencies, realize that they may have different metrics for success. Increased traffic volume was the top measurement according to 85% of the agency respondents, compared to 71% of the advertisers, in a survey commissioned by the Search Engine Marketing Professional Association last December. Conversion rates and click-through rates also rated highly as metrics of a successful search campaign.

Lisa E. Phillips is a senior analyst for eMarketer. Her report, “B2B marketing Online: Trends and Tactics,” will be published this week. She can be reached at [email protected].

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