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Search And CPG Brands: An Interview With Heather Frahm

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SMS:  This issue’s interview subject is Heather Frahm of Catalyst, whose clients include industry giants such as Procter & Gamble (P&G), Microsoft, Novartis, Whirlpool, and Pfizer. Heather, search has been around for over a decade now. What surprises you most about how consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands use search today?

Heather:  It surprises me that many brands today are making marketing decisions without tapping into their search data. Over the years, search has proven itself to be a highly effective marketing channel, but it offers brands much more. Consumer search behavior is inherently rich in data. Because of that, it provides brands with lots of information that can be used to increase brand market share and increase the size of the market.

Search data can provide brands with insights about a consumer’s reactions to a product attribute or to a specific initiative. For example, the search data might indicate that the launch of a new product attribute (campaign X) increased the volume of “brand” interest (defined by keyphrase volume) by 30% versus one year ago; or that when they launched a new product attribute (campaign Y), the “brand” interest remained flat versus one year ago. You can apply these learnings anywhere in the purchase funnel to ascertain the impact on consumer behavior. This data is game-changing if you layer sales data into the analysis.

1.  Is your new product attribute creating greater brand interest? Check the search data.
2.  How does your campaign message resonate with your consumer targets? Check the search data.
3.  Are they buying? Check your sales data.

I am surprised brands do not leverage search data to make better informed marketing decisions.

SMS: As a long-time search veteran, how do you see the channel evolving, and how can brands best prepare for it?

Heather: Search has come a long way. In fact, at one of my first meetings with a Fortune 500, we explained organic search and we were told that search (this was prior to paid search) was corrupt, and Company X would never participate in search marketing. As the years progressed, the barrier became brand managers who were suspect about its value. However, today it has become so central to marketing that it is now spoken at the C-level, integrated across online and offline channels, and part of everyday conversations around marketing strategies and communication plans. We are now sitting at the big kids table.

The first of two dramatic shifts was recognizing that digital assets are not just your brand.com site, so your search strategy is no longer just about the site. The fundamentals of search are connecting relevant consumer questions with brand answers. The answers used to sit only on brand.com. Today we want our brand answers to be wherever our target consumer is asking the question. What does that mean we must do?

  • Research offsite activity (what is the consumer searching for and where is she going?).
  • Develop offsite content execution (content syndication, social engagement).
  • Optimize all relevant digital assets (videos, blog posts, SKUs, ratings, and reviews).
  • Create offsite metrics.
  • Acknowledge that Google is no longer the only place a brand is discovered. YouTube is the second largest search engine, Amazon passed Google as top destination for shopping research in August, and lifestyle “search engines” are now critical to complete brand discovery. Plan accordingly.

According to comScore, only 25% of consumers searching CPG category keyphrases are going to brand sites. Yet, many brands spend most or all of their resources driving consumers to their brand site. This is a mistake — you are fighting with your competitors for a quarter piece of the pie.

To reach consumers today, brands need to think beyond Google and their own brand site. First, where is your brand (Vicks®) being discussed and second, where are conversations about the category (cough and cold) going on? Where are consumers asking questions that the brand must answer? For example, if numerous conversations are happening on RealSimple.com about healthy cereal, shouldn’t Cheerios and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes® be there? General Mills or Kellogg’s — who will optimize those digital assets for RealSimple.com first?

The second — and most-talked-about shift in search — is social SEO. Now the channel takes social signals into ranking considerations. In fact, social signals are being incorporated into algorithms. Social search will rely more on relationships and how people engage with content. This opportunity becomes even more critical as content consumption moves to mobile. To best prepare for social SEO brands should:

  • Build an online identity with Google+ and link other profiles, websites, apps, and content to your Google+ identity.
  • Engage in upcoming social networks like Quora, Pinterest, and Instagram.
  • Build an app for your brand. Build an API for your app. Optimize your app for iTunes and Google Play. Integrate your website and app with the open API of social networks.

SMS: Some marketers believe that conversion optimization is the key to winning the battle for the consumer. Do you agree, or do you think the war is won earlier on? Why?

Heather: How to best “win” a consumer depends on where the consumer is in the purchase funnel and if the brand has a right to “win.” To win the battle is to engage with your primary consumer in each section of the purchase funnel, with quality content.

Quality content is content that communicates the brand’s point of difference in the context of consumer needs to drive engagement, trial, and adoption. If a consumer is searching “buy Pampers,” her purchase intent is clear, and conversion optimization is critical. But if the consumer is searching for “my baby does not sleep through the night,” you want to capture that interest, provide Pampers® overnight dry diaper benefit content, and bring the consumer into the brand’s product conversation.

I personally believe that brands need to add real value to the consumer conversation before pumping their own individual benefits when engaging farther up the purchase funnel (earlier in the consumer journey). A brand’s perspective on the issues should be credible because of its authority on the topic or related topics. The product conversation should begin with the consumer once you have her attention and respect on topics SHE is concerned about, which often begins at a higher level than simply which brand to buy, at what price, and for which distinctive set of benefits versus the substitutes.

SMS: Content is King in B2B, but is it important in the CPG market? How should marketers leverage content to influence consumers?

Heather: Content is King. Content strategy and content execution is critical to influencing consumers. Content strategy is a focus on the content areas that uniquely connect consumers with brands. What makes content strategy valuable is its emphasis or prioritization of content based on its strategic value (i.e., helps to drive growth, solve a problem).

Content execution is also critical, as the internet is becoming primarily a content platform. Execution tactics must include SEO tactics that go beyond optimizing brand.com for the Google algorithm. They need to include research to identify target destinations. Those destinations should meet certain criteria, such as a set number of engaged consumers, demographic match, ease of optimization etc. Then brands need to determine the various digital assets they can optimize on those destinations in order to be discovered. At Catalyst, our Asset Optimization Platform does exactly that — it is an innovative approach to brand discovery.

SMS: What advice would you give someone trying to build a brand on an extremely limited budget?

Heather: There are plenty of great CPG brands that are not billion-dollar brands. If you have a limited budget, think multi-platform. Create a site with responsive design. This will allow you to have one site that responds to all devices — desktop, tablet, and mobile. The approach is cost effective. You’ll have one site, one paid campaign, and one set of organic recommendations. It also addresses consumer behavior. A recent Google study — The New Multi-Screen World — has shown that consumer behavior is increasingly tied to a multi-platform approach between a smartphone, tablet, and PC/laptop/TV.

SMS: What is critical to search success today?

Heather: Don’t forget the fundamentals! Marketers often get distracted by the latest shiny object, but that is dangerous. Marketers need to master search fundamentals. They should approach them in a disciplined fashion. Fundamentals that are typically omitted include:

  1. Content Strategy — Marketers should focus on the content areas that uniquely connect consumers with their brands. Don’t create a search strategy without having a well-thought-out content strategy.
  2. Content Execution — Search plays a key role in all content execution, owned, earned and paid content. An SEO pitfall: be wary if you are not leveraging canonical tags.
  3. SEO Recommendations — SEO recommendations are only valuable if they are implemented. Implementation is critical to organic search success. This is still one of our biggest challenges. Brands do not implement recommendations because they did not set up development budgets, the digital agency has different priorities, legal restrictions, etc. An aligned and enforced process to ensure that organic search recommendations are implemented is game-changing.
  4. Analytics — Leverage search for all the insights it can provide to help you learn about a consumer’s behavior. Look at consumer behavior (from search) on your site versus traffic from other channels. What actions are they taking compared to the actions you want them to take? Look deeper. What are the barriers and opportunities you discover? What is your site engagement? If it is poor — stop, research, fix, then turn search back on.

Once the fundamentals are in place, remember the role of innovation — it matters! In fact, a wise man (my father) once told me, “It’s important to know your customer, but just as important to know your customer’s customer.” Well today, Amazon is one of the biggest customers of CPG. Given that, our innovative efforts sparked the development of a solution (eShelf™) that will help Amazon deliver a better customer experience, and help them sell more CPG products. The solution ensures that when someone searches for “mop” on Amazon, the relevant brand information appears at the top of Amazon’s search results. Or if someone searches Gillette® razors, the first ranking item is their priority product, not a replacement head. Championing search fundamentals and disciplined innovation is critical to search success today.

SMS:  Thanks, Heather, for taking the time to provide us with some insights into branding and search that will work for any size business marketing themselves online.

**Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as a premium article in our Fall 2012 issue of Search Marketing Standard magazine.

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