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In the context of an evolving search landscape and multichannel environment, retailers need to re-evaluate the information they include in a brief when sourcing a search agency.

This article explores firstly why the search marketing brief needs to evolve before providing practical advice on what retailers should include in it.

Search remains a critical component of a retailer’s online and wider multichannel strategy. One might argue that it feels almost ‘old hat’ when pitted against new and exciting mediums, such as social media and mobile.

However, search engines remain the number one route by which ‘qualified’ prospects begin their discovery of a brand or product.

Yet the discipline has evolved significantly.

Search results include rich media content, such as images and video. Social media is increasingly influencing a sites ability to rank. And recent Google updates, namely Panda and Penguin, are bringing a much needed ‘quality over quantity’ approach to link building where genuinely useful content and PR skills are a necessity to search strategy.

Furthermore, retailers are operating in a complex multichannel environment where increasingly savvy customers expect a consistent and seamless experience as they move between different channels, such as desktop PC, mobile, store and catalogue.

This constantly evolving search landscape and multichannel environment is having a significant impact on the art of writing a search marketing brief. In short, a retailer’s brief to a search agency needs to be more detailed and expansive than ever before.

Why is a brief so important?

First and foremost, the process of writing a brief encourages the retailer to ask challenging questions of the business brining issues to light that may not have been otherwise considered.  Often it may call into question whether the retailer is actually ready to engage with a search agency.

For example, is there a proper business plan in place with clear financial targets the agency can work to? If not, it’s important to get this in place before throwing money and resource at search.

But assuming the business is ready to invest in search, the process of writing a brief can also bring focus to the process of researching and shortlisting prospective agencies i.e. those with the relevant experience, sector focus and approach.

Once the agency and retailer are in discussion the brief is to the benefit of both agency and client. The agency can build a strong understanding of the business, which leads to an appropriate strategy and tactical plan being presented.

The retailer benefits for the very same reason; a proposed strategy is developed which is most appropriate to their objectives, internal resource and budget, whilst being aligned to other marketing channels.

What should be included in a search marketing brief?

With the above in mind, multichannel retailers should include the following information in a search marketing brief.

Company background

This section is all about scene setting. It should provide context as to why you are looking to engage an agency. Therefore, include a brief history of the business, recent market trends, how the company has performed and the internal and external challenges you are facing.

Products

Demand, profit margin and competition in search results are all factors that will make one product more commercially viable to market using search than another. This section should provide an overview of your product strategy i.e. innovations, new launches and so on, as well as average orders values and typical margins on each sale.

This will be vital to shaping a recommended keyword strategy and forecasting expected returns.

Competition

The agency will want to spend time analysing the search, and wider marketing activity, of your main competitors. It is worth bearing in mind that your competition in search is likely to be quite different to who you perceive to be your competition in the offline world.

A small retailer selling ‘black high heeled shoes’, for example, may find themselves competing in search results with major players, such as John Lewis and Debenhams, or even Amazon. In turn, this may make related keyword targets unrealistic.

Target audience

Search is a fantastic customer acquisition tool when planned and executed in the right way. However, if an agency is going to help you acquire more customers they need to have an acute understanding of who you are trying to reach. Therefore, share any customer insight you have available.

Also include the specific reasons why this audience should listen to you. In other words, why are you better than the competition? Drawing out your USPs and key benefits will be critical to shaping a content-driven search strategy.

Commercial objectives

In shaping a search strategy, it is vital that the agency understand the context of how search is expected to contribute to your overall business objectives, and how it will support, and be supported by, other marketing activity as part of a wider multichannel strategy.

Therefore, sharing your business plan, commercial objectives and marketing strategy will help the agency to establish specific goals for search activity and also recommend tactics that align with offline activity, such as new store openings, for example.

Current activity and performance

Provide an overview of the online marketing tactics you are currently undertaking (or have undertaken in recent months). Outline what worked, what didn’t? Include top line results.

To develop a proposed strategy and tactical plan at pitch stage, the agency need to understand the investment you have already made in the channels under discussion, as well as having access to data via tools such as Google Analytics.

This is also the time to outline all existing or potential stakeholders, including other partners or agencies that you employ, as well as an overview of in-house resource and capabilities. Executing an effective search strategy requires a broad skill where responsibilities are often shared between agency and client.

As such, the agency needs to understand the skill, experience and desire of in-house staff to work on certain aspects of the strategy and tactical execution.

Timescales and budget

From the agency’s perspective, it is helpful to know when you intend to start the project, whether you are in contract with an existing agency (and any notice clauses) and perhaps most importantly the budget you have available.

The latter, in particular, will help the agency shape a proposal which ‘fits’ your budget and resource. 

I think it is also important to note that an agency interested in maintaining a good reputation in the market place will be making an assessment of the opportunity in just the same way as the prospect is making an assessment of the agency.

Are you the right fit in terms of their typical client profile, can the agency deliver results based on the budget you have allocated, and so on?

Being upfront with budgets and timescales allows the agency to qualify themselves in or out earlier in the process ensuring time on both sides is not wasted.

Finally, outline the stages you will be working through in making a decision; how many agencies are you inviting to pitch, who will be involved and who will make the ultimate decision, as well as any particular conditions an agency has to meet.

Conclusion

Without asking your business challenging questions and shaping a detailed brief, retailers run the risk of making a potentially costly decision when it comes to their search strategy. An ever-evolving search landscape and complex multichannel environment has had a subtle but significant impact on the information retailers need to share with prospective agencies right from the outset.

It is a process that requires more thought and perhaps a greater investment in time. Yet, in the long term, will ultimately deliver far greater returns.

Ben Potter

Published 12 June, 2012 by Ben Potter

Ben Potter is the former Commercial Director at Leapfrogg and now a new business mentor to aspiring digital agencies. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

19 more posts from this author

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