How Much Search Is Enough?

By Aaron Goldman, VP, Marketing & Strategic Partnerships

Yesterday I had the pleasure of participating in the SES Orion keynote panel, "How much search is enough?" Here's the session overview:

"Where does search really fit within a marketer's total digital advertising effort? Big businesses and small businesses alike struggle with how to allocate search marketing, and other online advertising or marketing efforts. This Orion panel will evaluate strategic thought processes and then grind down to tactical execution with thought leaders from the search engine marketing, advertising agency, and advertiser perspectives. We will explore how search can be "carved out" from an overall budget and how it will lead the white whale of online marketing — a truly holistic marketing strategy"

Despite how you think a bunch of search pro's would respond, the answer was not a resounding, "It's never enough!" We were very diplomatic in acknowledging that search can only do so much to stimulate demand. It's great at capturing it, but it can't drive interest like traditional broadcast media can.

I did have to clarify right off the bat that budgeting for paid search is a much different exercise than budgeting for natural search. The money comes from a different place (advertising vs. web. dev.), involves different stakeholders (marketing vs. IT) and the way the budget is spent is much different (media costs vs. labor costs).

Most of the interest from the audience (and moderator) seemed to lie in paid search so that's what we focused on. Lots of good dialogue ensued but the bottom line is that each marketer needs to approach this topic differently. There is no one-size fits all answer. That said, here are my main takeaways:

7 key things to consider when tackling the issue of budgeting paid search media:

1. Goals

Just as with any other platform, you can't/shouldn't do anything before understanding the goals and objectives. Is this a branding program or direct response? Is this a new product to market or a well-known brand?

2. Metrics

Once the goals have been clarified, assign metrics by which the program will be measured. For awareness goals, we're talking about impressions and share of voice. For DR, we're looking at ROI or CPA. And it's not always this cut and dry. Many marketers are trying to move the needle at all points in the purchase funnel and will need hybrid metrics.

3. Research

Now that we know what we're trying to do and how success will be measured, it's time to analyze past performance, the competitive environment and other macro and micro variables that will influence your ability to hit those goals and metrics.

4. Forecasting

Armed with all the research, we can now take a stab at projecting out various media spend levels and the potential return at each threshold.

5. Holistic Tracking & Reporting

Once the campaign is up and running, it's crucial to measure performance of all channels holistically. What impact is TV having on search query volume and conversion rates? Isolating these correlations will allow for optimization of the overall media plan and also help in budgeting and forecasting in the future (e.g. if the plan calls for $100MM in broadcast TV, then X amount needs to be set aside for search.)

6. Test, Test, Test

The only way to know "how much search is enough?" is to test every different combination of elements. Keywords, Landing Pages, Creative, Geo-Targeting, Dayparting, Position, etc. Once we've found the ideal mix to meet the efficiency metrics, we can dial up spend to see what volume levels can be achieved before we hit a point of diminishing returns. Keeping this data handy will help the next time we go through a budgeting exercise. As goals change, we'll now be armed with the data to show how much can be spent while meeting various metrics.

7. Fluid reallocation among channels

This was the biggest point I tried to emphasize today. I understand that many marketers need to budget out media by channel (typically at the outset of the year or on a quarterly basis) but the ones that succeed are those that allow for fluidity in their program. Despite our best efforts (and fancy econometric models) it's impossible to account for every potential marketplace variable that influences performance. Marketers and agencies need to be nimble and move budget around once the program is in market to react to the nuances of consumer activity. This is the beauty of a world in which most media is trackable. We can see what's working and adjust the plan accoridngly in real-time, rather than waiting for a post-buy report, mashing that up against focus group data and then determining how to budget for the next big push.


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