Within any consumer lifecycle, the following stages typically lead the user to an informed purchase:
The complexity of the product or service offering usually has a drastic impact on the number of searches it takes in order to create a conversion, with higher ticket items usually equating to a longer buy cycle.
Understanding the user's likely purchase state depending on the nature of the query arms advertisers with a tremendous competitive and strategic advantage. Below is a breakdown of the four major stages of a buy cycle accompanied by opportunities in which search marketing can be incorporated.
1. Awareness Phase
Typically, these are the broadest and most generic queries searched for by the user. In many verticals, the probability of a purchase is much more unlikely than later stage queries.
"high cholesterol"; "travel deals"
User brand awareness
User Confidence Level
This is a great opportunity to introduce a brand to consumers, but it often comes at a significant price. From an SEM perspective, it is frequently where lazy or amateur PPC experts throw empty branding dollars. Conversely, from a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective, a keyword such as "high cholesterol" is a pipe dream unless the site is considered a medical authority (if you're selling anything other than ad space, you need not apply for this space in a search engine).
- SEM: Try experimenting in content networks of authoritative and relevant sites. Generic keywords will be the most expensive, so this should typically be the last stage to open the marketing budget floodgates.
- SEO: Typically not the greatest spot to attempt keyword rankings unless your site has a significant level of authority. Try experimenting with branded content hosted on authoritative domains.
2. Information Refinement Phase
This phase is typically marked by user query refinement. Instead of general one- to two-word searches, the user is now refining searches using long tail keyword modifiers. The end of this phase is marked by specific brand related queries.
"Cholesterol medications"; "Miami beach hotels"
Find product or service
Consumer Confidence Level
Unlike the awareness phase, this is typically a much more profitable opportunity for advertisers and SEOs.
- SEO: Search engines typically are far more willing to serve less informative-based content within the confines of these results, as they generally tend to map results with user intent. For many mid- or high authority sites, these are the bread and butter anchor keywords that will drive relevant traffic.
- SEM: This is frequently the golden zone for PPC campaigns. Keywords within this range of the buy cycle can typically create brand awareness and have conversion power. Try targeting longer tail queries first before expanding to broader search terms. This is also a great area to experiment with the content and, eventually, display networks.
3. Reassured/Comparison Phase
By this stage of the buy funnel, the consumer is much closer to making a purchase decision. The user now looks for evidence to support or refute the decision to purchase. Additionally, the consumer will search for additional deals or coupons surrounding the product.
"Marriot Miami Beach"; "Marriot Miami Beach Reviews"; "[Brand X Heart Medication”"; "[Brand X Discounts”"; "[Brand X Coupons”"
Reinforce purchase decision/improve value proposition
User Confidence Level
Often, this is the most cost effective stage in the buy cycle, but frequently misleading. Branded keywords can serve as PPC stat padders in the sense that they produce great ROI numbers that are typically a product of previous online and offline marketing efforts. Larger advertisers can use attribution tracking to map query chains to purchase decisions.
- SEM: This is a great opportunity to run a remarketing display campaign that offers a specific incentive to purchase (such as free shipping or a discount). Frequently these little nudges are just enough to sway consumers. This is also a highly effective way to recapture folks who bounced in the shopping cart. Additionally, this might a great spot to run branded keyword campaigns, especially if your competitors are targeting your branded keywords. This real estate protection can help prevent lost transactions.
- SEO: This stage should be viewed as an opportunity to improve search results for queries that will likely end off domain (like to a review or coupon site). A black hat SEO will do his best to build links to off-domain review pages that are generally complementary to his/her brand while submarining those that are less-than-flattering. A white hat SEO will deploy a group of brand ambassadors to relevant review sites for 1:1 engagement or story sharing. A good SEO will likely do a bit of both. Distributing coupons can also serve as a great link building/brand awareness campaign. This is also a great spot to engage appropriate influencers for reviews.
4. Loyal/Advocacy Phase
This post-purchase phase is generally one of the most important in marketing as it's where evangelism, loyalty, and word of mouth are born. While search doesn't always play an especially vital role in this phase, there are several effective search strategies that can help solidify consistent touch points between brand and consumer.
- PPC: Again, a 30-day cookie is a great window to serve upsell opportunities through display campaigns.
- SEO: Highly crawlable and interesting blog posts can serve as great link bait when seeded to influencers and brand loyalists. Right now, a great example is OK Cupid's blog OkTrends, which aggregates profile data to create fascinating and link worthy posts. Not only do these posts engage current users, but they also present the brand to unfamiliar users in a new and interesting way.
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