Before We Convert: Time and Success in Search Engine Marketing

WIRED’s Julia Greenberg recently wrote “Forget the Click? Online Time May Be More Meaningful” where, addressing predominantly Facebook, she looked at the importance of time spent viewing an ad or article – rather than a click or a like – to establish whether or not something was meaningful or relevant to a user. This prompted my own thoughts on how we measure success in Search Engine Marketing (SEM), and whether time is something we need to give greater consideration in understanding success in our campaigns.

Often when reviewing an AdWords account, the first metric we want to know about is conversion volume, using this metric to gauge the success of our digital marketing efforts. This seems straight forward – has my campaign generated leads for my client? Yes, ok good, no – why? Can I fix it? But what if conversion volumes are low even after you’ve tried a variety of strategies? What if only your branded campaigns are converting? Does this mean your campaigns are unsuccessful? Obviously in Pay-Per-Click we can’t “Forget the Click”, but what happens after the click – or before or even the lack there of – certainly still adds value both for the brand and for the future of the account.

In this post I address the value of engagements other than those that converted, because if we can understand these better I believe we are in a better position to improve the overall performance of an account, and perhaps through this increase conversion volume.

Brand Awareness and Impressions

Let’s assume you’re running a start-up and there is little to no awareness around your brand, but you decide that alongside your social media campaign you’ll also invest in some SEM, so that when people do look for your product they’ll find it. Your SEO may not be 100% up to scratch yet, it’s a work in progress, but at least your SEM ads are appearing. These are getting very few clicks, and only very rarely does one convert. In this case, what is the value of your SEM campaign?

Here it is important that you are locating your brand amongst searches relevant to it or, in other words, impressions matter and the share of impressions you gain even more so. The clicks will come as your SEM campaigns gain traction and are optimized, but for now improving your impression share amongst the competition situates your brand and your products in the market – they exist and can be found online.

This is where I argue that bidding on a strong set of generic keywords that are relevant to you is pivotal – it doesn’t matter if they are not achieving the best Click Through Rates or Conversion Rates at the outset – because you are selling to people that are not familiar with what you do, but by placing an ad in front of them it takes you one step closer to getting there. Patience is essential, building strong impression share and improving your average position matters. Think about it this way – when someone sees a billboard it doesn’t mean they’ll immediately run to store and buy what they saw, but they do now know that you exist.

Clicks That Don’t Convert are Not Worthless

Conventionally a 2-5% conversion rate is considered high, although depending on what you are marketing and the digital marketer you are working with above 10% may be considered “unicorn”. So if we go by convention, we wonder what is the value of the remaining 95% of un-converted clicks.

First the obvious – they landed on your site and have through this expressed an interest. Think of these clicks as “perusing”. You can re-market to these potential customers, you have increased your brand awareness, you have made another person familiar with your products, and they have engaged with what you do. So they didn’t convert this time but that doesn’t mean they never will, they have however spent time on your site and that does matter.

This brings me to my second and more important point, and that is that the clicks that don’t convert are invaluable because it is from these clicks that you can learn how you can improve performance. This is where data-driven marketing comes to the forefront. Why did this person click on my ad? What did they do when they were there? Is there a high bounce rate? Why? What’s the average time spent on site? Where was it spent? How was it spent? It is in this sense that I return to Greenberg in that “time is more meaningful” even when applied to SEM, because what really matters is what happens when someone has clicked on your ad is how they then engage with your site, even when they don’t convert.

Here I would like to emphasise again the importance of an integrated digital marketing strategy. You can have the best social media campaigns, have an amazing CTR on your SEM ads, but all of this doesn’t matter if the traffic that is reaching your site doesn’t meet the needs of your potential customers. Why send traffic to your site if they then leave because of its user un-friendliness – which brings me to CRO and UX.

CRO and User Experience in Digital Marketing

It has been argued that “UX is really just good marketing”, its marketing 101 – know your users, create the experience they want.

“It’s about knowing who your market is, knowing what is important to them, knowing why it is important to them, and designing accordingly. It’s also about listening after you’ve designed and adjusting to the changing marketplace: improving the experience of those in your market”.

This is where we can talk about a digital marketing ecosystem – bringing full circle your SEO, SEM, Social, your online presence – have you created a positive experience for your customers online? And more importantly have you optimised this experience to maximise the number of customers you are converting? Here, Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO), or “the art and science of improving websites”, is an essential part of the ecosystem. How the user interacts with your site – the user that you have sent there through your digital marketing efforts – is evaluated and A/B testing is done to improve performance.

And so with this we again return to time – time spent consuming media online, time women and men spend on apps, time lag between first visit to site and point of conversion. The point I am making is that it is important to keep at least 1 eye on the bigger picture, the one that doesn’t just measure success in conversions. When your campaigns are not converting thinking beyond the volume of conversions and return to time and other metrics, because the insights that you draw from this may well be the key to turning your campaigns around.

Share your opinion

2 Responses

  1. Wow, what a topic and post! Strongly agree that SEM has huge value beyond conversion metrics, whether through branding, mindshare, ideological influence, traffic generation, reputation management, or even recruitment. There’s much to benefit from by being present in relevant search results so to look only at one metric or another is a limited perspective. All depends on the bigger picture goals, of course. Excellent points here Maike!

    • Maike Zylowski says:

      Thanks Chris! It wasn’t the easiest topic to tackle as conversions, and optimizing for conversions, are such a big part of what we do in PPC. But after reading Greenberg’s article I had a long think about why we would say a campaign is successful or unsuccessful in SEM, and thinking that we often quickly judge value on what converts while diminishing or forgetting the value we may be adding with our campaigns in other ways. I suppose it all comes back to what you want to achieve.

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