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It continues to trouble me just how much dross there is floating about in the world of search marketing. Only the other day, I asked a prospect how their current agency had chosen the keywords that they were currently targeting.

Their response: "They asked us to supply a list of keywords we wanted to rank for and just went with those".

"Holy crap" I thought, "this still happens?"

There are plenty of good articles out there that talk about how to establish a keyword strategy so I’m not going to cover old ground in this article. Needless to say though, simply asking a client to supply a list of keywords, which are then ‘targeted’ without further analysis or discussion, is pretty scandalous in this day and age.

Unfortunately, this is just one example where agencies and consultants sell ‘search strategies’ that, in reality, are not strategies at all. 

Execution without insight = guesswork

I like to work with companies who understand the need for insight, strategy and planning, and are prepared to invest in it, taking the view that execution without insight is nothing more than guesswork.

To help visualise the importance of insight, I use a very simple, pyramid graphic (where X represents the end goal).

Natural search pyramid

As you can see, insight is the foundation from which the search strategy is formulated (keywords, channels, tactics and campaigns), which in turn, informs content creation, both on- and off-site. 

Time and time again though, I see retailers and agencies jump straight in at the execution stage. The necessary interrogation of objectives, products, target audience, marketing plans and so on is bypassed in pursuit of a fast buck or short term needs.

In other words, insight isn’t gathered, analysed, and ultimately used as a means to shape the overarching search strategy. By default, tactical execution is ill-informed. At best, it’s a shot in the dark.

The outcome of this is waste, in terms of budget, resource and time. Is it any wonder that search campaigns so often fail to meet expectations?

Putting the customer at the heart of everything

Whilst there is a whole load of stuff that we pull together and analyse when shaping a search strategy, from business plans through to in-house capacity and skill, I want to continue a theme from a previous article on ‘search experience optimisation’ - that of placing the customer at the centre of your search (and wider retail) strategy.

In particular, let’s look at how both transactional data and qualitative insight can be used to help turbocharge your search efforts:

Transactional data

In the last couple of years, we have found the outputs of RFM modelling an essential component to informing and shaping a client’s search strategy.
RFM stands for recency, frequency and monetary.

It is a process by which you analyse sales data and segment your customers based on their historic purchasing behaviour. As I have cited in a previous article, fundamentally, there are just three things you can influence in retail:

  • How many new customers you acquire.
  • How much your customers spend on each transaction.
  • How much they spend in a year (or in their lifetime).

RFM modelling allows you to understand your customer base in this context, which in turn can be used to drive decision making and budget allocation. For example, in meeting financial goals, is the priority to attract new customers?

Or does the focus need to be programs to encourage low frequency customers spend more? Or do we need to re-engage customers who haven’t bought anything in the last year?

This insight should filter down to the search strategy. For example, if the primary goal is customer acquisition, then the search strategy is likely to focus predominantly on non-brand terms to increase awareness at the earlier stages of the buying journey, thereby driving visitors who may not have been previously familiar with the brand.

Furthermore, by understanding the products that new customers typically buy first, the keyword strategy can be further honed.  This is purposely simplistic but you get the picture.

Transactional data is therefore the bedrock for establishing the role that search needs to play within the wider retail strategy. 

By understanding the products that typically ‘recruit’ new customers, average order values and repeat purchase rates, you can make much more informed decisions on how much time, money and resource needs to be invested in your search strategy, as well as a more accurate view of what you can expect in return.

Customer insight (of the qualitative variety)

In speaking with a prospect, one of the first things I seek to understand is how well they know their target audience. ‘We target ABC1s’ is all too often the reply (a reference to the geodemographic classification of British social classes, ACORN).

This is fine as a starting point. However, beyond this many of the companies I speak to know very little else about the audience they are trying to reach, namely the specific behaviours, habits, needs and expectations of this audience.

So what you ask? What relevance does this have to their search strategies?

The answer lies in how customer insight can be used to inform a rather important aspect of search strategy; content creation. Using keyword tools is of course one method by which you can build a general view of how people are searching for information, advice and inspiration around your products.

But you can go deeper than this by involving your customers in the content planning process. This isn’t rocket science I know. But it just doesn’t happen nearly as much as it should meaning too many content ‘strategies’ are not fully aligned to the needs of the customer.

It’s so easy to ask

To better understand the behaviours of your customers (beyond what an analytics package can reveal) is neither expensive nor complicated. Creating email or exit surveys, for example, cost very little. There is an art to survey design so utilise an expert if you do not have the experience in-house.

But even then, you are talking pittance to gain the kind of insight that not only powers your content and search strategy but can also reveal traits, behaviours and needs to inform other tactics and activities, such as website functionality, social media and email marketing programs.

It is important to make the distinction here between data and insight. Focus on trying to uncover the stuff you can’t get from an analytics program. From what I see, search marketers are very good at the data and analytical stuff.

I’m not convinced enough search marketers understand the value of customer insight to inform their strategies. Search engines don’t buy stuff, people do. Therefore, a search strategy should begin and end with a fundamental understanding of the customer.

As content plays such an integral role in raising awareness and increasing engagement, conversion and retention, involving the customer in the process should be standard practice, not a nice to have.

To conclude

In the turbulent (yet exciting) world of retail, the winners and losers will ultimately be defined by their understanding of their customers and the ability to meet their ever-evolving needs and expectations. Search remains an essential part of the customer journey. 

In fact, retail search volumes are continuing to grow year on year. Yet the value of strategy (and the use of transactional data and customer insight to inform it), is too often ignored in the pursuit of short cuts and quick-wins.

This isn’t always driven by the agency. Retailers are under a lot of pressure just to get stuff done. I get this, I really do. But not one retailer I have spoken to this year had specifically set aside budget for insight and strategy.

Yet taking a step back, analysing the landscape and putting in place a more informed plan will always drive greater efficiency, less waste, more revenue and satisfied customers, compared with simply jumping in feet first.

I’d love to hear of your experience…how much value does your agency / company place on customer insight and strategy?

Image courtesy of ChuckCoker

Ben Potter

Published 12 August, 2013 by Ben Potter

Ben Potter is Commercial Director at Leapfrogg Digital Marketing and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow Ben on Twitter and Google+.

17 more posts from this author

Comments (4)

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Matthew Swan

I completely agree that insight and data must be at the heart of all strategic decisions. The email campaigns we run at Ve Interactive have a very structured optimisation process which is all data driven; optimising a subject line is always done before A/B testing the design of a creative. Similarly, our A-I chat provides conversation history which we can analyse with our clients in order to find the common causes of site bounce and abandonment rates.

Decisions should not be on a particular demographic's gut feeling, but on the entire customer pool.

almost 3 years ago

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Max Eaglen

Ben Potter is right when he says that the winners and losers will be those who understand their customers more fully and meet their evolving needs and expectations. At Platform we also believe that understanding the customer needs to go further than just analysing their transactional data and behavior, but by segmenting this ‘big’ data into ‘small’ data and ensuring that the messaging is personalised according to the results. What will raise a spark with one customer, might not resonate with another. Ensuring you have a consistent brand message, that is relevant to the specific audience, is the real way for brands to succeed in today’s competitive market

almost 3 years ago

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P.L.S.

To begin with, i agree with your pyramidical representation of how to prioritize and shift focus step wise.
However, I have a problem in my organization - a retail hypermart in tier2-3 cities in India. We have begun to collect data and apply RFM model on it, but I am unable to draw conclusions/insights beyond which was already known to us before we started our CRM programme! Given the sine wave of the purchase behaviour in India (multiple major festivals in different geographies; varying climatic patterns eg heavy monsoon or scorching winters or harsh summer months) all of which make it difficult for us to bring customers out of their homes, how would you suggest I slice/dic data to draw insights! I am yet to find a eureka moment.

over 2 years ago

Raman Vaidyanathan

Raman Vaidyanathan, Managing Director at VERTIBLU

Mr. P.L.S

Please reach out to us at info@vertiblu.com. We would be happy to help grow your company.

over 2 years ago

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