The Content Network — Time To Try, Try Again

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Synopsis — Google’s Content Network (now the Display Network) has been an alternative advertising spot for years, but varying degrees of success have persuaded many marketers to concentrate instead on the search-based AdWords platform instead.

It is true that typically the conversion rate on the Content Network is lower than search, a fact that has tended to dissuade advertisers from placing campaigns there. Guy Hill, in “The Content Network: Time To Try, Try Again,” explores this reasoning, offering guidelines and examples as to why advertisers should reconsider their decision not to place part of their budget there.

Great opportunities have always existed within the Content Network, where Google places your ads directly on sites with content related to the product being sold. For example, if you sell bikes, your ads may show up on bike repair sites, bike review sites, etc. Placement is not completely beyond your control – specific sites can be targeted or removed from placement.

Hill suggests that if you have tried the content network in the past without success, you should rethink your strategy, keeping in mind market changes and Google’s refinement of the network that may have taken place since your initial forays. He presents three specific points to keep in mind:

1. Use the right metrics to evaluate content advertising – don’t focus on conversion rate, but look at overall profitability

2. Make sure you are using current reporting tools – advances in reporting and new tools can help improve return on investment

3. Try again – many changes have probably taken place in your website, your products, your marketing approach, etc. since you first tried content ads, making success perhaps more likely today.

With a case study and other examples from his clients to illustrate these points, and commentary on B2B use in addition to B2C, the article will provide you with ample evidence that rethinking your approach toward the Content Network is well worth the investment of time.

The complete article follows …


The Content Network — Time to Try, Try Again

Most advertisers using search marketing are looking for more volume, better efficiency — or both. And many advertisers are well aware of the potential of search marketing to help achieve volume and efficiency goals. There is less agreement, however, about the usefulness of content targeting — running on Google’s content network, for instance.

Clients often tell SEM professionals, “we tried that,” or “the conversion rate just isn’t there,” or “the content network just doesn’t work for us.” However, SEM audits indicate that many advertisers have found some success in the content network — not always in a general sense, but certainly campaign by campaign. Sadly, for many, an overall determination is made about content in general, and the decision is to take the whole effort offline, including the campaigns that worked.

With the search channel, SEMers are more subtle than that — we understand the crucial role of optimization — but that logic may break down in content network marketing. However, if we apply the same thoughtfulness to content advertising as we do to the search channel, more advertisers could find volume there (even efficient volume).

If you’ve been unsuccessful with content in the past, ask yourself how long ago it was and what has changed since then? As you revisit your content advertising strategy, consider these three points that may help make content work:

  • Use the right metrics to evaluate content advertising.
  • Make sure the current reporting tools available have been utilized.
  • Don’t be afraid to try again.

Use The Right Metrics To Evaluate Content Advertising

There is volume in content marketing, but if you look at the wrong metrics, you miss success in their implementation. Ever drive by someone’s yard containing a pile of dirt with a “free!” sign on it? One could say there is no such thing as a bad product, just a bad price! The point here is, at the right price, even dirt is useful to someone. While content advertising isn’t free, it’s often available at a fraction of what the top keywords are going for in the search channel. Cost per click (CPC) isn’t the right metric either, but a low CPC is a good start on success.

The right metric depends on your business, but it is likely something like cost per sale, cost per lead, or other cost-per-action (CPA) metrics. Advertisers may see that the conversion rate on their content advertising is much lower than that for the search channel (which means nothing on its own), and they determine content is not working. Or they think the inventory is lowering the overall conversion rate on their site and back away, assuming the traffic is less valuable. This fails to account for the decreased cost of the inventory and what that does to overall CPA and profitability. Yes, content inventory has a lower conversion rate, but the CPAs here can be very attractive. Even professional marketers and client-side executives make this mistake all the time — they look at a metric like conversion rate or CTR, and decide that content isn’t working even before they think seriously about CPA and the ROI involved.

If you think about content targeting in terms of “dollar in, results out,” and you can find a price that works, content can work. It’s really that simple. It does work for many advertisers — it just requires bids that make sense at a CPA level, and the same thoughtfulness we give to optimization in the search channel. Take it campaign by campaign, think about the CPA of “dollars in, results out,” and you’ll find more success here.

New Reports Tools That Help Make Content Advertising Work

There are many free reports, available from search engines themselves, which can help advertisers make smarter decisions. For instance, Google has released several powerful features that can completely change the content targeting efficiency for many advertisers. New reports, such as site placement reports, can shed light on new targeting/optimization opportunities, helping to improve efficiency by quickly cutting waste at the site placement or site category level. This report alone can turn around content campaigns, as you can apply many of the same optimization techniques to content that you do with search — in this case, optimizing out placements instead of keywords, etc.

Some seemingly unrelated new tools and reports, like geographic performance reports, can help as well. If certain geographic regions drive an inefficient CPA, exclude those regions and breathe new life into content campaigns as the remaining inventory performs significantly better. Taken together, new targeting options and account settings can provide a very different landscape in which to search (no pun intended!) for new volume and efficiency opportunities.

Many of these reports are new in recent months, so if you haven’t tried content advertising since they were released, you have new reason to try again. The SEM landscape is getting more sophisticated, with a lot to learn and try, and these reporting tools make a real difference to advertisers every day.

Try Again

To be successful, professional marketers need to constantly look for opportunities to improve campaigns. With gains in other areas, revisiting content advertising may produce different results. After all, it’s not just the experience of an SEM manager that increases with time — changes happen at many levels.

Have you improved your website since you last tried content targeting? Is tracking any better than it was last year? How about the product mix for your business? Have you perfected the offer, landing pages, and creative in your SEM campaigns? Have you discovered new clusters of keywords that haven’t been tested in content yet? If you’ve made progress in other areas of your business, you have good reason to believe that you’ll have increased success when re-launching content advertising. You also can learn from your search channel campaigns and use that learning in content marketing.

Consider launching only your best search-only campaigns in the content channel, which allows you to retry content advertising in a limited, smart, strategic, data-driven way. You don’t have to test everything again, but by learning from the search channel, you can take the best and the brightest with a more thoughtful plan. Just because it didn’t work last time doesn’t mean it can’t work now — particularly if you’ve demonstrated improvements in other areas of the marketing mix.

As an example, here is a case study of an audit conducted for a client in January of 2008. Their previous agency ran an extremely complicated account structure (thousands of ad groups), had spent tens of thousands of budget on content, and produced very few results. This is not unusual. They shut content down, and while they saved some budget, they lost volume, which is one thing most advertisers can’t afford to lose.

Working on their SEM effort, we started with the search channel. We restructured the account (it was huge and ineffective), corrected some landing page issues, and did some consulting about the marketing message and product mix, resulting in huge gains on the search side. We learned a lot during that time, which in turn gave us more hope for content. That made us want to try again.

We then re-launched the best campaigns in the content channel. At that time, Google had just released several new tools, allowing us to refine the volume/efficiency work. Today content is a robust contributor to this client’s success. Yes, the conversion rate is lower than search, but so is the CPC, so the CPA is well within range — dollars in, results out! Those three concepts — focusing on the smartest metrics, keeping up with new reporting tools, and trying again based on new learning — made the difference and allowed this channel to begin to make contributions to sales goals.

In addition to consumer-based marketing, content targeting works perfectly well for the B2B market, often at least as well as the search channel. In one instance, content advertising was so successful, we moved budget away from search spending into the content channel and effectively cut our overall CPA by 30%. Yes, “conversion rate” went down, but we drove more leads, at a better cost per lead, than ever before. For another client, we saw a 20% increase in volume in two months (with consistent efficiency), based on contributions from the content channel only. B2B or consumer-based marketing — these principles apply.

Conclusion

Does content advertising work? The answer is, “it depends.” Unless you have a crystal ball, the only way to find out what works is to give it a try and then test, test, test. As we get better as marketers, and the search engines offer more sophisticated reporting, our ability to drive more success increases with our experience. Focus on the metrics that matter and learn about the new tools available to you. Now that you know more, you’re allowed to try again!

About the Author

Guy Hill is an online marketing consultant with DroidINDUSTRIES, specializing in SEM, customer acquisition programs, and tracking/analytics.

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One Comment

  1. Yes, it IS time to try again! Google's defaults are not set up in your best interests though. Unless you have a mobile oriented product (pizza or towing service) or are setting up a mobile specific campaign, turn the mobile distribution off. Use small groups of tightly themed keywords in your AdGroups. Go easy on the negatives (don't copy them over from search). Get creative with your ads (think Billboard with just a second or two to grab their attention). Small changes can make big impacts on your traffic so once its up and running, focus more on excluding non relevant traffic and making sure your positioning is #3 or above. Don't set your ads to run equally. With automatic placements (keyword themes) its best to let Google show the best performing ad. Good luck!