Searching for hearts and minds

At a time when budgets are being hastily trimmed in areas that have supported the branding effort, interest in cost-effective mediums like search is gaining momentum. More specifically, businesses are interested in how search can be used to drive the branding process and preserve brand equity.

Almost every marketer knows that search engine marketing can be a sales driver, and that its request-driven nature is possibly the best way to harvest brand traffic and consumer demand. But it's whether search can be utilised to achieve the same kind of brand goals that TV, radio and event sponsorship can deliver that is slightly less obvious.

After all, how do you use a request-driven medium to plant that seed in the first place, when it's not even being sought? And how do you change attitudes to your brand when people aren't curious to find out how you may suit them? In other words, how do you use a powerful request-driven medium like search to do the important things that people aren't requesting - and get consumers to spend time with your brand, allowing you to win their hearts and minds?

The answer to many branding issues is carefully understanding the phrases that people use in their searches, a technique known as keyword analysis.

When we say keyword analysis, we're not talking about the traditional, commercial type that tells you how many people were searching for the phone you sell, the routes you fly, the cities in which you trade or even how many people searched for your brand name. We're talking about the kind of keyword analysis that tells you about the issues that are important enough to drive your customers online to search about them, and which also happen to align with your brand values.

It's using the search engines and the data they hold on search behaviour as the world's largest focus group - and using it to find out what you need to be talking to customers about, besides selling, to win their hearts and minds.

Here's an example. While working with a leading pet-food manufacturer looking to convert more pet owners to the brand, we found keyword analysis turned up high volumes of searches covering subjects as diverse - and sometimes bizarre - as pet naming, pet insurance, breed information and how to clean pet urine stains out of upholstery.

The brand did none of these things in a business sense; they sold pet food. However, the high volume of searches certainly highlighted that there are many concerned pet owners interested in the health and wellbeing of their pets, values which correlated highly with the ethos of the brand.

In a sense, who better to provide pet-related advice to these pet owners than the brand in question? The ability to not just cater for but actively reach out and help a community en masse was there to be discovered and leverage. All that was needed was the right content development and search engine marketing focus.

A further point is the traffic in such cases is far cheaper than the more commercial-oriented shopping related traffic, which allows target consumers to be touched by the brand for a few pence at a time.

With these targeting efforts come new ways of measuring the success of search. After all, attempting to measure the impact of search marketing on brand development, using methods like cost of acquisition or return on advertising spend, often proves fruitless and disappointing.

But by tracking the actions of users, you can take a bigger picture and gain genuine insight into what your search activity has created in terms of goodwill, purchase influence, attitudinal impact and time spent with the brand. All you need to do is track activities such as time spent on site and repeat visits made, downloads of leaflets, sign-ups for newsletters, form fill-outs, forum contributions and token or voucher downloads or print outs.

For example, we measured the success of search for a particular baby and child products company by 'how many parents we have helped today'. This was based on the knowledge that parents who feel they can trust a brand to help them through parenthood will turn to the brand at the supermarket shelves, or when they buy online. A metric was built by a combination of onsite actions and interactions of visitors, and was delivered through a paid and organic search campaign, which stood up to numerous boardroom acid tests in terms of proving its worth.

So to conclude: if you're looking for a cost-effective and branding-capable medium, search may be just the factor you've been missing.

The key to search and branding is to understand that search engine marketing can't make more people search for your brand, but it can help build your brand. People don't just go to search engines to shop; they go to search engines to find solutions for their lives. If your brand can help people live their lives better, it will stand an altogether better chance at that final point-of-sale decision.

So, research those things that keep your audience up at night and drive them to Google. Develop a strong content proposition around those issues within your websites. Understand the words that people will use to hunt that information down. And use search engine marketing to get out there and let people know you can help.

It's likely you'll find the results pleasantly surprising.

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