The Secret to Perfect SEM? It's in the Mail
Direct mail and search engine marketing are a lot more similar than you might think. If you understand the similarities between them and where the two channels part ways, you're well on your way to grasping the makings of a good search campaign.
I'll go through five comparison points to explain what I mean.
1. Be on target
Much of the strength of direct mail comes from targeting. With the right list and analytics, you can find shoppers who match your perfect customer's geography, income bracket, age group, stage in the buy cycle, shoe size, hair consistency, musical taste and/or height. When you reach out to those people, they're likely to buy from you.
Targeting is equally central to search. Smart search targeting allows marketers to reach searchers based on geography (including designated market area), time of day, day of week, IP address, browser type and more. As in direct mail, the first secret of success comes from making the best use of the data for a highly targeted, calculated marketing campaign.
2. Envelopes and letters
For a direct mail piece to truly work, the recipient needs to open the envelope and read the contents. If he doesn't, the letter is worthless.
Search isn't so different. Ad copy takes the place of the direct mail envelope: It's the point at which a customer decides whether he wants to interact with you. Your landing page is the "letter," where the customer moves past the "opening" toward a deeper engagement. You need to get both right for either to have any real value. The landing page is only effective if a searcher clicks to arrive there; but it also needs to engage the searcher and drive him to the next action for the search campaign to be effective.
To make the perfect envelope/letter package, both the letter and the envelope need to carry an enticing underlying message, conveyed with just the right content, design and feel. But the 95-character text ad - or search "envelope" -- doesn't leave much room for creative genius, and searchers, trying to zoom their way to their online destinations, aren't always in the mood for warm fuzzies. Because that's so, it's often best to use the search ads to focus on the incentive -- like price, selection, convenience or quality. Creative elements like color, font and layout often are best left for the landing page (coupled with incentives, of course).
3. Test, analyze, refine
In direct marketing, how do you know if your list, envelope and letter are all working properly? You run tests and analyses, and refine your campaign based on what you learn.
These same concepts are true in search. Plus, the test and analysis methods are similar -- since, in both search and direct mail, the key questions you're exploring are, in fact, the same. In both channels, you want to know who converted and how, and which messages and creative elements your customers responded to most favorably.
But search analytics do have some advantages over direct mail analytics. First, search data shows you a much clearer picture of your customers' reactions to your ad. You can see if searchers clicked on it, when they clicked, how long they spent on your landing page and how they interacted with that page. By contrast, there's no way to know for certain how many letter recipients opened the envelope and how much of your letter was actually read.
Another SEM analytics advantage is the element of speed. A direct mail piece easily can take two weeks to produce and another week to arrive in mailboxes. It might take an equally long time to implement changes based on new learnings from campaign analytics.
Search, by contrast, is extremely fast -- both because the searcher responds (or doesn't respond) to a search ad within seconds and because virtual content means production might take only hours, minutes or seconds to complete. That speed means it's easier to test out concepts, amass significant amounts of data in a short amount of time and make changes to your campaign as you learn more -- all remarkably quickly. This adds enormous efficiencies to search campaigns over direct mail.
4. Push vs. pull
When customers search on keywords related to your business, they're hoping to learn about the kinds of products or services you offer. That's a totally different mentality from the one people have when bringing in the mail -- they might be waiting for a postcard from their aunt who's visiting Myrtle Beach, S.C., but they probably aren't waiting for your latest mail drop.
Direct mail is a "push" medium; search is a "pull" channel. In search, the consumer is leaning forward to receive a message.
I have no doubt that the push/pull difference is a major contributor toward another direct mail/search distinction: Typically, search conversion rates are significantly higher than those of direct mail.
5. Stiff competition
One more difference between search and direct mail is the competitive landscape. In organic search, your first goal is to make your link the one link that the user clicks, out of millions of other options. In paid search, meanwhile, you and your competitors are locked in an ongoing, fast-paced, continually changing auction for the few top listings. You can't win in search if you don't have enticing search creative and technological speed.
In direct mail, by contrast, the competition is much more subtle. While search pricing is the result of cutthroat auctions, mailing costs come from far more stable factors like the price of postage, paper, ink and other associated costs. Also, while mail recipients typically read multiple letters -- and even those from competing businesses -- searchers will leave the search engines (at least for that session) once they find a result they like. That's why, in search, it can be much harder for multiple advertisers to get the attention of a single customer; if the searcher has clicked on your competitor's link, he's also decided to overlook your ad entirely.
If you're transitioning from a direct mail background into the search world, this new kind of fast-paced competition is a major difference you'll need to learn to love.
I could go on with a more extensive comparison between direct mail and search, but I think you see my point. Search is an online extension of the more traditional direct marketing world, so it's no surprise that what works in one direct marketing arena should work in another, albeit newer, one.
If you're that old school direct marketer looking to jump into the new world of search, then you might see more familiar terrain than you expected to find, even if you need to adjust to serious differences. The landscape looks different, but the basic concept is the same: Smart, enticing, targeted campaigns win. That's a strategy that, as far as I can see, will never change -- no matter where the direct marketing channel takes us.
Reach Mark Simon at firstname.lastname@example.org