Buying Cycle and Keyword Strategies

3/25/2008

- Zuzanna Zajdel, Campaign Manager

Picking the right keywords is critical to any search engine marketing strategy whether this is an organic SEO project or PPC. The choice of keywords will determine the quality and quantity of visitors to the ads and website. If they are not selected with great precision and accuracy, no matter how aggressive the marketing campaign may be, the right people may never find out about it. So one of the first steps in plotting an internet marketing strategy is to gather and evaluate keywords and keyword phrases. Keyword research strategic considerations should include the popularity of the search term as well as the stage of the buying cycle. It is important to realize that the terms people use in their search vary, depending on where they are in the buying cycle. As such, it is crucial to understand what stage searchers are in, to provide them with the necessary information to become customers.

Searchers start out in what's known as the "interest" phase. As they learn more about their topic they progress into the research phase and finally the purchasing phase. At the beginning of their research, searchers may not know exactly what they want or what is available. They are looking for information pertaining to their needs like product's variations, brands, sizes, qualities available, who offers it, etc. When doing the initial research, people are likely to use broad terms to find information and learn about their topic. For example: Let's say somebody is looking to buy skis. They probably have some idea of what they want: alpine or cross country, beginner or advanced, used, new etc. They’ll start by searching with terms like “skis”, “alpine skis”, “new skis”, “freeride skis”,” beginner skis", "race skis", “women skis". Another example: Let’s say someone is planning a ski trip. Some terms they could use are "skiing", “ski trips”, “ski packages”, “ski vacation”.

During this phase searchers are not likely to make a purchase. This is an information gathering step of the buying cycle; therefore you have to provide as much information as possible to the customers to convince them that they need your product or service. To target visitors at this stage you will use broad keywords and bring them to landing pages that correspond to where they are in the buying cycle. This can be an article on the subject, a tutorial, or pointers to good educational sources. These searchers may download white papers, look up specifications, use product configuration wizards, or take any multitude of actions on your site. Special offers do not usually work in this stage. As a side-note, you should also try to get visitors onto your email database because if you are unable to follow up with potential customers, they may forget about you when they are finally ready to make a purchase.

Is there any value in using search marketing earlier in the buying cycle? Several studies have shown that the answer is "yes." This is true for B2C or B2B businesses, regardless of whether they are offering low priced or high-end products. Manufacturers or branders should reach searchers in the early stages of their buying cycle. Even though they are not likely to convert especially well, the searchers are clearly looking for information, most likely with the ultimate goal of making a purchase. The core benefit of showing up for broad terms is for branding purposes, more so than generating actual conversions or traffic. By having general keywords in the account, people who are looking for products/services but are not ready to buy, will see the ad and click through to the site to compare pricing or available services providing a company a greater chance to be the merchant of choice when they are ready to buy. Because searchers are just looking for information, the site doesn't need to be listed at the top of the page for these general terms. Further down on page one or even sometimes page two can be highly effective. They’re doing research and they’ll get to you. However larger companies that are using the search engines as a branding tool (and have the budget for this) will want to be at or near the top of Yahoo, Google, MSN, etc. on all major terms.

During the research stage of the buying cycle searchers have found what they were looking for and became more informed. They are getting closer to the end of the buying cycle. Now they need to know why you are different from your competition. At this stage, they are interested in the specific features and benefits that you offer. Especially when searching for products, most searchers will want to compare specific brands, store locations or product details, availability and prices. Here they will go with more specific terms such as “Atomic skis”, “new Rossignol skis”, “top race skis”, “inexpensive beginner skis”, "Colorado ski packages", "Utah ski resorts", "Tahoe ski vacation", "skiing in Austria". The unique selling proposition is important to the customer at this stage of the buying cycle. The easier it is to compare your product with others the more likely searchers are to go with your offering. Visitors in this stage tend to use more specific terms, so when targeting these keywords, bring them to more specific information on your products and your company. Listings should be geared to people searching for a specific brand. The brand name should be included in the title and description, and the listing should offer other information a searcher may be interested in possibly from the keyword phrase they’ve searched. As in the interest phase, the potential buyer is likely to search many different sites so you don’t necessarily need to be in the top three positions.

Once the research and comparison steps are completed shoppers are ready to make the decision and buy the product or proceed with a particular service. They know exactly what they are looking for and enter very specific terms, perhaps ones that include the model numbers of the products.

Including specific keywords in your campaign is important to close the sale. Most of the phrases will be composed of three or more words and are known as long-tail keywords. These keyword phrases have lower search traffic, but are highly-targeted to your audience. The benefit of using long tail keywords is the reduced cost per lead and typically higher conversion rate! Choose the most specific terms such as: “Atomic ST 12PB skis”, “buy Rossignol women skis”, “2008 Head ski sale”, “skiing in Aspen, Colorado”, “lodging in Breckenridge”, "Heavenly mountain resort offers".

When using the long tail to target searchers who are ready to buy, you need to be in front of the customers when they search for the certain product. It is imperative that your ad be visible when it counts. To achieve this multi-tier coverage, merchants should bid less aggressively on general keywords, to maintain awareness, but bid more aggressively on long tail keywords to ensure you are listed in the top three positions (or top five depending on your budget) for those terms. Furthermore, customers should be told that you have what they are looking for and why they should buy from you. Therefore, it’s important to mention the benefits of doing business with you in your ad text and on your landing page. Lastly, searchers should be led directly to what they are looking for - straight to the product page within your site or to consumer generated content like user reviews.

In the end, it is very important to realize that the customers looking for product or service are at different stages of the cycle. By understanding this buying cycle merchants can make the best use of their Internet advertising budget by spending their dollars where they are most likely to get a return on that investment. It is crucial that PPC campaigns focus on all aspects of the cycle from campaign organization down to keywords. Site owners need to decide which stages of the search buying cycle they would like to capture traffic from and they need to make sure that the pages they are optimizing for those terms are also meeting the needs of those searchers. They should think about their business, their sales cycle, and the way visitors to their site interact with the content. The way ad copy is used in the listings is also important. If you're trying to attract searchers in a particular phase of the buying cycle, tune your copy appropriately. Optimize your PPC accounts around these ideas and you'll find less need for keyword refinements, enjoy greater competitive advantage and a search strategy that leads to success at a faster pace.

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