As we enter one of the most important retail periods many digital teams will be investing in marketing communications activity to attract customers into their eCommerce execution. A chunk of that investment will be in pay per click (PPC) and for many businesses this will not deliver the promised performance. So, are there things that retail leaders can do even now that could improve the chances of performance to plan? There are five places leaders should look to ensure plans are robust.

Should we buy our own brand?

This debate has raged with the same intensity as that in Gulliver's Travels between those who open their boiled egg big end up and those who open it using the small end (of course we all know small end is right), but is it as futile?

Our rule of thumb is don't… unless. Checking the 'unless' criteria is a way of assessing how likely any brand PPC campaign is to deliver additional traffic, as opposed to cannibalising what you would have received 'for free' through organic search.

So, you invest in brand if:

  • Other people are buying your brand to divert interest away from you.
  • You have a promotion or offer with a distinctive landing page that converts significantly better than taking customers through the usual journey.
  • If your organic results do not put you in the top three in search outcomes against your key brand terms.

And even if you tick one or more of the boxes above, brand PPC is the lazy agency's answer to showing it can deliver performance. Brand terms are cheaper generally speaking, as you can show a lower cost per acquisition without working too hard. This ensures the client gets real value for money.

The measure to track with all brand PPC is 'Impression Share: Lost Impressions'. This isn't a measure many agencies volunteer but it should be one in every eCommerce leader's KPI list. Simply put, the greater the percentage of lost impressions in a brand campaign the more inefficient the investment, i.e. you are overpaying to buy the customer interest you have attracted. As a benchmark for brand campaigns you should not tolerate anything over 10% and really be looking for performance at 5% or less.

Should my PPC traffic convert at a higher rate?

Organic search usually brings you better quality traffic leads. Organic searches are clicked on 850% more than PPC links, according to NetMatters. Getting this right is a long-term strategy, as it takes time to build page authority and be indexed for the right search terms. It can provide a great return, as maintaining a first-page ranking on Google can help to generate clicks and brand awareness. Being first in organic search delivers far more customers to your execution than coming third.

PPC however, does convert better on average: something like 1.5 times. So, if your PPC is not converting at least 25% better than organic traffic, you should start to look hard at your current execution. The issues tend to be around the numbers of customers attracted by the advert and the willingness of customers once they land on a site to complete a purchase.

What do I do if PPC isn't generating the customer interest promised in the plan?

This suggests that the advert itself isn't working. We are back here in lazy agency territory. Effective PPC doesn't just appear out of an agency's creative genius. In our experience it comes from hard work that tests headlines and copy. If your team isn't testing adverts rigorously and adjusting them to maximise their position and reducing their costs, then you’ve probably found the major reason for poor performance.

What do I do if I get loads of customers but they don't convert?

The classic reason for conversion failure is having attracted customers interested in a proposition, the execution then fails to engage and convert that interest on the website.  A simple test here is to ask where customers who click on the advert are taken. If it's to your homepage or a category page, then this isn’t likely to engage. If it's to a product page it may be too soon to ask them to buy. Effective PPC is normally associated with a dedicated landing page that talks to and engages the interest of those customers who click through. No landing page suggests that your e-commerce team are not thinking about the customer.

If you have a landing page, check that the content is relevant, the calls to action are bright and easy to find and contact details are clear and visible on the site.

How do I know if the keywords we are using are the right ones?

You don't unless your team and/or your agency are running a continuous programme of testing to optimise your appeal to customers in your market. Search terms change over time and as customers become more sophisticated online shoppers they use search terms that qualify and specify exactly what they want to see. Agency folk will talk about 'Fat Head and Long Tail' keywords. Fat Head keywords are those that attract the most customers (e.g. car insurance) whilst Long Tail keywords are those where interest is less but the specificity suggests a clear interest in a specific product (e.g. best car insurance for men under 25). Increasingly you will want to ensure that you have really identified all the potential Long Tail keywords in your segment of the market. 

Recent research from Experian Hitwise and SEOMoz suggests that Long Tail keywords comprise up to 70% of all search traffic. Furthermore, by using long-tail keywords you can tailor your ads to the users' search intent with much more precision.

Summary

It's not too late to avoid poor performance, pain and confusion over this year's Christmas and new year. Running through this checklist now could save you money and make you more:

  • If you're running brand PPC check you are doing so for the right reasons.
  • If the reasons are good, then check the 'lost impressions share' and set specific performance targets against this measure.
  • Review PPC conversion against other sources of traffic. It should be if not the highest, one of the highest. If it's not, set a target for improvement.
  • Check there is an active advert testing programme with proven performance improvement in position and cost per click – if it's not there ask for it to be started.
  • Check every advert has a landing page. If it doesn't, is the page at least relevant? If it's not get a new page made.
  • Check your Long Tail keywords strategy – if the Long Tail is shorter than the main terms, ask for more.

James Hammersley is the co-author of ‘Leading Digital Strategy’, a guide to eCommerce strategy published by Kogan Page. He is a founding partner and director of Good Growth, a digital change consultancy that has worked with organisations such as The Economist, The Co-operative, O2 and Manchester United.