Laying the Foundation for Paid Search Success in Large Organizations

Let me start off with a question: What would you need to do to convince the necessary people in your large organization that a unified, integrated approach to paid search marketing will have a stronger financial impact if centrally managed?

And, once you have built a consensus, what would you have to do to get the plan moving? Would knowing the answers to these questions be valuable? Good, let's get cracking.

This is the third article in a series on Handling Search Marketing in Large Organizations. The second article focused on search engine optimization (SEO), while this one will focus on organizing around paid search (SEM).

For those not familiar with the other articles, I work at AOL. As far as AOL being a large organization, we are talking about more than 50 different brands and products with different strategies, hundreds of millions of web pages with a number of different conversion metrics. My team is responsible for SEO/SEM to drive new traffic into the free content areas of AOL and its other brands such as MapQuest, AIM, TMZ.com and Netscape.

As I previously discussed, I believe SEO can work better in-house as a large cross-functional effort in a large organization. Bottom line for SEO in large organizations is that there are too many people, often located all over the world, that are touching, changing, publishing, removing, or designing pages every day to try to control it in one group. It is more about educating and training the organization on the role they play in SEO.

However, with SEM, I believe it can work better in a large organization if the budget, strategy, and campaign management functions are centralized. Let's explore why...

SEM – Central Management

Why would you want to manage SEM centrally in a large company rather than having each business unit manage their SEM budget and their SEM campaigns separately?

For us, by managing the SEM marketing budget and SEM campaign management in one group, we were able to create one centralized team that takes a holistic view of the company. This way we can invest in and manage SEM campaigns where it makes the most sense for the company as whole.

There are three kinds of reasons for doing this: strategic, economic, and practical:

Strategic Reasons

Fact is, in a large company, you can't afford to provide every content channel or product with a meaningful level of support. Heck, in the music category you could spend tens of millions of dollars in one year supporting one channel area. However, in a large company, you have many other brands, content channels and product areas and it probably doesn't make sense to put all of your eggs in one basket.

To make the right decisions, you need to know what channels, brands, and products are the company's priorities, and how much inventory is available in the search engine space. You need to assess whether there is enough demand for what you have to offer.

Just because you have the content doesn't mean many people are looking for it. You might find that you impact the bottom line more if you used those dollars in another area.

You must also ask where the investment in paid search is likely to provide the highest return. This is based on whatever you measure as your conversion metric (selling a product, advertising revenue, partner sign-ups, etc.). This can also be a factor when you have competing content or competing products among brands. Then you need to consider not only what generates the highest rate of return, but also consider what provides the best consumer experience.

These are questions that typically can't be answered objectively in the individual trenches. Remember – everyone has targets that they need to hit somehow. So these questions are more efficiently and effectively managed if you have an objective team looking at the organization as a whole.

Economic Reasons

At AOL, many sites have overlapping target audiences. Say a person searches for Jessica Simpson. She is a singer (AOL Music), a movie actress (Moviefone) and a celebrity (TMZ.com). Do we want these channels competing against each other and bidding each other up?

That's not in AOL's economic interest. So who decides what properties we support in paid search? The centralized SEM team, after doing their due diligence answering the strategic questions we asked above.

Practical Reasons

Ah, yes, practical. Develop a communication process with the other marketing support and promotion areas (online, offline, internal, etc) to understand what they are supporting and how much, so that you can determine the incremental value paid search would be driving, if any.

The key is to make sure you are still able to monetize through SEM. Traffic, to drive advertising revenue, may not be needed in certain areas based on other efforts going on throughout the company or – in some cases – SEM may not produce as efficient a CPA (if it is selling/downloading products) as other marketing efforts.

That is why we centralize the budgets in an autonomous group that is able to take an objective look at the business in order to make these tough decisions.

I would love to tell you this is easy, but the truth is, it takes a lot of work and coordination across multiple teams to try to balance all of these variables. You need to develop a disciplined process in order to make this work.

To most large companies with multiple brands, many products and countless content channels, a centralized SEM marketing budget is a new way of doing things. And mid-level management will only give you their support for a centralized SEM budget and centralized SEM campaign management at first — because you have the backing of the senior executives.

If you stick with it, after a while, the company will come to rally around your efforts. Because you will show them tangible results from SEM that help reinforce the strategy and provide financial gains that contribute to the bottom line.

Management will be heroes. And so will you.

Melanie Mitchell is the Vice President of SEO/SEM at AOL. Melanie has over eight years of experience in web site promotion and over six years experience in search marketing for major sites across several industries including travel, local, entertainment, ecommerce, news and sports. She has managed SEO and PPC campaigns both in-house and from the agency side.

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