PPC: Process Not Planning

My monthly column over at Search Engine Land in case you missed it. Many times we’re asked to present a plan for the next 30 – 60 – 90 days of a paid search program. This makes a great deal of sense when we bring a new client on board and have to fix or re-build their program. It takes time to build out a program comprehensively and laying out the priorities helps manage expectations. After that point that request for a “vision” or “plan” reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of paid search marketing. Paid search is an amazingly powerful channel for capturing existing demand. It is not a demand generating channel. Like the yellow pages people only see the ads when they’re in the market for the advertiser’s products or services. Yellow page ads don’t make people interested in taking yoga; they convince people who are interested in yoga to try the advertiser’s studio. Paid search plays the same role, but it’s easy for marketers steeped in traditional channels to miss the implications of this fact. For demand generating channels planning is of paramount importance. Television ads seek to 1) create awareness of a brand; 2) infuse that brand awareness with positive connotations; and 3) catapult that positive awareness into action. Marketers must plan the proper messaging and imagery for each phase, and plan the timing and budgets. Even direct marketers like catalogers must plan contact strategies, page counts and formats, circulation counts and frequency of touches. Planning is required because the marketer must generate interest and action, and the time lag between marketing investment and eventual payoff is both long and not guaranteed. Paid search is different in every respect. Budgets don’t make sense for advertisers with shopping carts on their sites because the sales happen before they pay for the ads. We don’t have to plan what products to push or when; the ads will be served to the right audience at the right time and in the right volume to respond to consumer demand. This is not to suggest that paid search requires no work. Paid search demands well honed processes for dealing with product turnover, landing page changes, promotional offers, seasonal shifts and more. Skilled analysts study data six-ways-to-Sunday to find nuggets of gold in search logs, in click-to-order intervals, and in new classification schemes that feed statistically meaningful differentiators to our algorithms. Reacting to shifts in consumer behavior and anticipating them whenever possible takes knowledge, skill and mountains of well-organized data. However, it doesn’t really require a plan. Indeed, predicting what projects will be most valuable 30 days from now, or 60 is both impossible and unwise. The priorities change depending on all kinds of factors outside of the analyst’s control. Locking an analyst into an arbitrary schedule prevents them from adjusting to the priorities of the moment and thereby squanders opportunities. Asking an analyst for a long range plan for a paid search campaign is like asking your stock broker what stocks you should buy and which you should sell 6 months from now. They can make those recommendations if you really want them, but usually you’d be wise not follow them. Absence of “a plan” is unsettling, particularly when you’re working with an agency. You can’t see them hard at work at their desks every day, so it’s natural to wonder whether they’re asleep at the switch. This fear is compounded by the reality of PPC agencies that all too often are asleep at the switch. Trust comes from results, and in PPC results come from smart people with great tools and great processes. Anticipating and reacting to changes in the landscape requires hard work, knowledge, skills and the flexibility to follow one's nose.
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