Paid Search Can’t Scale Without Help

Whether you’re a brand or an agency, arguably the best place to be is to not know where to spend your next marketing dollar. It’s the point of scale, and all brands hit it — from the small start-ups to the massive retailers of the world.

It’s amazingly great because it means you have covered your current customer demand to the best of your ability (e.g., your brand is covered in search, SEO is a well-oiled machine, remarketing, email, etc., are all in good spots), and you need to find new avenues for acquiring new customers and growing your business.


Image via Shutterstock

Unfortunately, hitting this point can also make your heart beat a little faster and your palms sweat just a bit as you know the frightening conversation that comes next (and, this conversation happens with small clients and big clients alike).

The conversation where you walk into your CMO’s office (yes, the same CMO that doesn’t understand digital to the point they should and could care less to learn about it), and you begin to explain to them that the next dollar they spend on digital marketing is going to lose them money.

I’ve tried explaining why a bunch of different ways – from comparing it to print advertising, to talking through attribution modeling, to simply saying we are moving to more prospecting rather than only retention – and in the end, every CEO/CMO/client has the same bewildered look on their face as they try to understand why the channel that routinely gives them a 10:1 ROI is now going to be giving them a .25:1 ROI.

Despite the difficulty in getting the higher-ups to buy into the concept, it is actually a great spot to be in. It means you have a chance to grow your/your client’s customer base. If you are a search agency, this is arguably the best, most important place to be in as you have an opportunity to move past working at the bottom of the funnel (brand search, retargeting, etc.) and begin to move further up toward more advertising that will drive the business forward.

The challenge is that search is not a channel that scales very well, so without help from other channels, your expansion efforts will be short-lived and you will find yourself back at the bottom of the funnel. While there is no one way to do it, here are a few things to keep in mind as you push through this inflection point.

1. Search Doesn’t Scale Well

If you are a search agency, Google, or any of the search technology providers out there, you are scoffing at this notion and/or writing me off as an idiot. True, there is some scale in search, and you can find different pockets that work well for you; but, if a CMO asked you what you would do with $1M to grow the digital brand quickly, efficiently and creatively, and you answered “paid search,” you won’t be able to make much of a case.

Don’t get me wrong, search should be part of the mix, but with so many opportunities to show the brand in a much more creative light — ranging from basic video advertising to online/offline partnerships and everything in between — it is very hard to position paid search as the lead role, and those that do will quickly (and rightfully) get shut down by the CMO.

2. Get Creative

I used to hate it when clients or bosses would say something along the lines of, “Here is limited direction and a general budget amount, come up with something impressive.” I believed that what they were really saying was, “Work real hard, come up with some stuff, then I will trash it and go with what I like anyway.” But now that I have been through it a few times (aka am a few years older), I actually appreciate the question a bit more.

In the past, my problem was I always started with what I knew – paid search – so my answer was always “put more money into paid search, then do X, Y, and Z.” It didn’t matter what X, Y, and Z were. It was the idea that I started with paid search as the answer to the question requiring a creative answer that was nullifying my other ideas.

Instead, bring good ideas from any/all channels – offline ideas, partnerships with other brands, pop-up stores, digital branding, etc. – knowing that they will benefit the brand overall. Sure, you might not get to execute the plan for the skywriter over Manhattan given that you are a search agency, but know that whenever your idea does get executed, all the bottom of the funnel pieces will benefit.

3. Prepare Your Analytics

Right now, all of you are thinking, “I have my analytics in place, I have some attribution in place, this is easy — why am I reading this junk?” The reason you are reading this junk is because if all you have done is gotten your analytics prepared, then you are missing the most important part.

When you run campaigns that are designed for scale, how and what you track are different from the metrics you track when you run for retention. So, should you have your Google Analytics and all that set up correctly? Of course. But, you should also plan to look at things like click path reporting/attribution, changes in search volume (impressions and clicks), new customer acquisition, new visit counts, new sources of traffic, etc. And, perhaps the biggest thing to account for is that not everything you do when trying to scale will be as linear as your typical direct response channels.

It won’t be simply that they clicked on three ads and then bought. The amount of marketing interactions and the amount of time between them will vary wildly, with some of them even being untrackable (the horror!). So, be prepared to have most of the pieces to the puzzle, but not all of them, and know you will need to build your story with information less-definitive than you are used to having.

Going Past The Point Of Scale

Anytime you run a new type of campaign or push past your own comfort zone, it can be a little scary. It can be even scarier knowing that all eyes are on you to help push your company/client past this point and on to bigger things. But, the sooner you do, the sooner your comfort zone will expand. The sooner your comfort zone expands, the sooner you will be able to scale. The sooner you are able to scale, the sooner you will be better than that silly, old, unscalable product called paid search.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Analytics | Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing | Search Marketing Column


About The Author: is a New York-based digital marketing and strategy consultant specializing in retail. He has worked with Nike, Neiman Marcus, Staples, Michael Kors and many others to develop fully integrated digital marketing strategies.Follow him @VicDrabicky on Twitter.

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  • Pat Grady

    Can we change “Search Doesn’t Scale Well” to “Search Doesn’t Scale Well When Non-SEMs or Analytics-Dummies Set The Work List Priorities”?

  • Jayne Reddyhoff

    I have a feeling that there are some useful nuggets of information in this post, but they are getting lost behind unclear terms.

    Can you please define what you mean by the words “retention” & “scale”?

    By retention, do you mean the usual definition ie retaining existing customers? Do you mean encouraging further purchases from existing customers? Or something else?

    If you mean the first, I’m not surprised you received a negative reaction to putting paid search first in your list of tactics!

    Similarly, by scale, do you mean acquiring new customers or MORE new customers?

    If I’ve got your message, it is that a good online marketing consultant thinks about the full, integrated marketing mix that will best meet their client’s need, including the right metrics monitor.

    I have an overwhelming urge to say” duh”!


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