The customer journey through paid search

Full Funnel Thinking

The customer journey through paid search

Paid search isn’t the “set it and forget it” solution that marketers sometimes make it out to be (try as we might to toss out keywords, spend money, and get leads). Just like every other piece of the content marketing ecosystem, paid search is all about the customer experience. Amanda Farley, Partner at SSDM and contributor to Search Engine Land and Marketing Land, stopped by Found Conference to talk about the customer journey in paid search.

Understand the customer journey.

To really understand paid search, Amanda says we need to understand the customer journey. Think of the customer journey as the sum of all the experiences a customer goes through: from the first introduction to your brand, to becoming a full-fledged brand advocate. Search is at the foundation of that journey. Even though we often think of organic customers as more interactive than paid search leads, that isn’t necessarily the case. So how does paid search play into that pathway for your customers?

Paid search isn’t the simple act of giving money to the Google machine and getting sales. A common misconception is that the customer journey is linear, with a start and an end. This framework assumes that a customer moving through the funnel is moving directly toward the conversion phase. Most of us understand that our audiences need an awareness of our brand before becoming customers. How can we build on that understanding?

Customer Journey
Imagine looking down the eye of a tornado, where everything is moving quickly around you. That’s the customer journey.

In reality, the customer Journey has plenty of twists and turns through awareness, engagement, action, conversion and advocacy. The customer’s path through the eye of this hurricane relates to several areas of customer intent:

  • Length of buying cycle
  • Emotional investment
  • Dollar investment
  • Timeliness.

Think about the variety of purchasing journeys: if you’re buying an emergency replacement part for your home’s water system, that’s a much faster — and less researched — purchase than an entire new home. When we think about the funnel framework, we need to assume that our customers engaging with branded products through a variety of experiences, rather than going through the the busying process on a conveyor belt.

Shift to Full-Funnel Thinking

Companies that understand their audience have shifted to full-funnel thinking. Instead of bumping from introduction to purchase along a linear path, customers actually move in and out of the buying funnel.

Understanding the full funnel means accepting that not every campaign can have a sales goal. Amanda says that, too often, paid search marketers use what she calls the “nice to meet you, now give me your wallet” strategy. Some paid campaigns push a “buy now” landing page for queries that are, in truth, more focused on research. And if we assume a customer is ready to buy a new bathtub, but they just learned that they need a new bathtub five minutes ago, we’re not meeting them where they are.

Full Funnel Thinking
Know where your customers are.

Develop your campaign strategy.

Because not every customer is in the same part of the funnel, not every campaign will be sales-oriented. Amanda suggests mapping out your campaign categories with an understanding of the three major “zones” of the customer experience:

High-funnel (awareness) customers may be aware of your brand, or they may only be aware of a problem that will lead them to you in the future. They may be entirely new to your brand, or even to your industry. They may be performing some top-level keyword searches and troubleshooting. These customers generally meet our audience criteria, but aren’t otherwise highly qualified, because they haven’t yet determined an interest in exactly your product. So, be sure to have something of value to offer high-funnel customers: we’re talking infographics, how-tos, and any other educational material that makes sense.

Mid-funnel (engagement) customers are solution-driven, understanding the problem they want to solve. They meet a defined behavior criteria (such as views of competitors), and perform more specific research keywords. Messaging to these users should set your brand apart: why should they care about you compared to the competition? What makes your brand unique?

Low funnel (conversion) customers are educated on your marketing, brand-aware, and and nearing a final decision on converting. Down-funnel users may use exact match, low-funnel keywords — and strong calls to action are useful tools with these users.

So, how can you meet customers where you are? Don’t treat every customer the same. Instead, devise campaigns aimed toward high-, mid-, and low-funnel customers. Just like any content creation strategy, paid search needs you to ask the right questions. Amanda says that each campaign should answer the following:

  • What is the goal?
  • Who am I talking to?
  • What matters to them?
  • What are the steps in the decision-making process?
  • How am I going to help through that process?

In order to shift our thinking on the customer journey, we need to think about people — not conversions — first. The best, most customer-friendly companies understand that the branding experience is really the customer experience.

Check your settings

As you transition to a full-funnel marketing model, Amanda says to start with your paid search settings. Remember that campaign settings and account settings differ in AdWords! Don’t only check the settings on individual campaigns; also check your account settings regularly. And, don’t assume Google’s default suggestions are the best fit for your brand. A few things to manage in your settings:

Turn off automatic suggestions from Google.

If you don’t physically go into your account settings and turn off automatic suggestions, Google can automatically make changes to your ads. If you’re worries about the platform running outside of your brand guidelines, turn off automatic suggestions.

Just as important as targeting: excluding what and who you don’t want to target.

AdWords allows you to exclude irrelevant audiences in order to reduce cost and increase conversions, but these settings may change over time. Be sure to check for exclusions under your account settings. Make sure you are adding location exclusions (for states or cities that you don’t service), negative keyword lists (for similar but irrelevant keywords), and placement exclusions (for channels like irrelevant display networks and kids’ YouTube channels).

Under campaign settings, check to make sure your location targeting makes sense.

Adwords’ default location settings target people who are in or show interest in your targeted location — can cause your ads to show up in money-wasting locations. So, if your company only services certain locations, target those locations specifically. Once you’ve established your AdWords settings, make sure to visit reporting features periodically. Check your location reporting and exclusions, and visit AdWords’ geographic report to make sure you’re only targeting your preferred countries or regions.

Once you’ve established your AdWords settings, make sure to visit reporting features periodically. Check your location reporting and exclusions, and visit AdWords’ geographic report to make sure you’re only targeting your preferred countries or regions.

Check to see whether you’re opted in to display ads on partner sites.

While you’re reviewing campaign settings, check whether your ads appear in those sites in the Search Network that partner with Google to show ads. Including Google’s search partners can be a useful way to diversify your ad placement. However, budgets tend to run up with search partners, and you can’t control the quality of the websites on which your ads appear.

Don’t just check settings; check reports

Using the Search Network, using suggested locations, or any of AdWords’ other defaults may make sense for your brand — just don’t do it on accident. By performing a simple checkup, you can save money and make sure your resources are allocated exactly where you want them.

Amanda suggests checking  your Google Quality Score, but doing so with caution. Google calls its Quality Score “Quality Score is an estimate of the quality of your ads, keywords, and landing pages. Higher quality ads can lead to lower prices and better ad positions.” However, make sure you’re not leaving all the work up to Google. Take notes, test everything yourself, and be careful about choosing automated changes.

You’ll also want to create and test as many audiences as you can, keeping in mind that diverse audiences will exist at different places within the sales funnel. Test and upload multiple lists to see what works. Try lists of certain customers, or abandoned-cart lists. Determine what lookalikes may be useful. You can set up these audiences in AdWords’ observation tool. If you’re aware of audiences that should be excluded, exclude them. Irrelevant demographics may include people of certain ages, people in certain locations, or only one gender.

The takeaway

The moral: what’s best for Google isn’t always best for your audience. Take time to set up campaigns properly, and don’t assume that every default suits your brand. Continue to perform quality control and audit your paid search regularly. And, remember: do what’s best for your brand, not what’s best for the platforms.