How SEM Produces Incremental Revenue for B2B Marketers

By Andrew Joyce, VP Strategic Services Group at MeritDirect

The B2B customer journey is a long and complex one. Often a conversion is preceded by emails, catalog views, searches and site visits, before the first phone call or meeting. And these measurable actions are only half the picture, where brand reputation, thought leadership and peer recommendations make up the other half. Not knowing what pushed someone over the edge can frustrate budget-constrained marketing execs, and in the typical “last click” measurement scenario, non-branded keywords seem to produce a low return on ad spend.

This conundrum leads many executives to frown upon search keyword spending beyond token branded keywords that seem necessary. Without proof that search contributes incremental value, justifying a heavy search budget can be nearly impossible. It’s up to the marketer to create proof points that demonstrate the real power of search, and that includes better customer journey mapping, attribution models and better testing.

Be Real About the Conversion Funnel

The data can’t be ignored. Forrester reports that 92% of B2B marketing begin research with a Google search. And rarely does a B2B buyer leap from the top of the funnel all the way to the bottom and convert.  By the time a B2B buyer has done their research, checked their pricing and received the appropriate approvals, they aren’t going to perform a non-branded search. They’re going directly for the brands that they just spend days, weeks, or months researching. They know the name of the company with whom they’ve decided to purchase and will often execute a branded search to get back to the site to buy.  This is why the non-branded terms appear to produce so few conversions; they don’t lead to same-session click-to-conversions.

But, those non-branded terms have real value, directing a prospect early in their search toward your brand and away from a competitor. As a decision-maker does their research and moves closer to a purchase, several different competitors are researched and considered. With Google Ads delivering the traffic for each visit – potentially to competitors that already have a robust search program in place.

Measure The Real Value of Search

Attribution modeling can help tie value to those earlier actions so that they are no longer underfunded or treated with suspicion. Literally, any model is better than the “last click” or “most recent action” model of awarding credit. For example, measure every customer touchpoint and assign equal weight to each, or measure “first click” and see which channels and campaigns lead to eventual conversions. Seeing the customer journey in these new fresh ways will help to reduce.

For the tests you’ll need to do, it’s good to work with a search agency that isn’t jealously guarding the budgets they manage, because the test will require turning some spend off in certain regions for a time to compare against a control.  If your agency won’t execute a geo-based holdout test for you—it means they are afraid of what the results might be and what it could mean for the future of their engagement with your company.

Then, build a forecast of sales in a few medium-importance states. It’s important to have a sense of what performance from these states will be across all channels, not just website sales or tracked-to-Google sales prior to conducting this experiment. Measure actual performance during the go-dark period to the forecast made prior to the go-dark period. Then, compare your forecasted performance to your actual, which should give you a sense of the incremental benefit SEM provides your business.

Full funnel projections can also help remind teams of the value of non-branded search. Don’t just create reports that look back at customer behavior once someone converts, actively track people through the purchase funnel and share what touchpoints they’ve already gone through. This can help predict pipeline and also help with lead nurturing strategies. Someone who recently performed an unbranded search is a potential converter a few weeks or months in the future and deserves to be counted, not dismissed.

After Insight Comes Action

Armed with valuable new information, now you can create a plan and have the backing of the team. That plan can start small at first but should be prioritized based on the keywords that appear in the most searches as prospects move through the funnel.

In order to start along a better SEM path, marketers need a free mind. Unlike, say, a luxury car purchase, B2B buyers are looking for things that they need, not what they want. They must review the performance, cost and functionality, confer with peers, and gain approval. That research and approval process is complicated, and it requires time and patience. To keep track of these buyers, and to keep conversions coming, it is less about the impact on branding and more about volume and nurturing. The more qualified people being pushed through the funnel, the more will eventually convert (perhaps through branded terms.)

Be creative with testing. Look at the best performing non-branded keyword in a last-click, first click and equal attribution approach. See what happens to early funnel leads if you invest in that keyword. If you see an uptick, test similar keywords, or move down to the second-best term. Create a methodology that has a long horizon for success, at least as long as your typical purchase funnel.

Soon, it should also become clear that some keywords are used in the earliest “awareness” phase vs. the “consideration” stage when prospects know more and are more deliberate in their searches. And ultimately, these two stages of leads, when marketed effectively, will lead to the “decision” phase, when prospects will finally type in those branded keywords that used to get all the credit. With the right non-branded search strategy, it will soon become apparent that many more prospects get to that final stage.