Search, Social Media & the Offline Purchase

Marketers continue to become, as a whole, an increasingly numerate lot. (What's numeracy? It's the opposite of innumeracy.)

It's inevitable that we'll wake up in a cold sweat every so often, facing up to the reality that some consumer behaviors can't be measured intuitively, certain audiences just can't be segmented, and the occasional performance metric actually does nothing to tell the story of how a brand fits into the marketplace.

Recently we discussed the ROPO effect (research online, purchase offline) and how a substantial portion of purchase behaviors initiated online will end up in an immeasurable black hole, never to be spoken of again.

While Google is pinning our economic hopes on an e-commerce led recovery, let's not forget that offline activity still makes up the lion's share of purchase behavior.

So if we're going to speculate about consumer behavior, one channel is more free of bias than the others. We call it word of mouth.

Online Feedback Channels

Thousands of years ago, before the impression and the click, the earliest humans survived in part by specializing and bartering in hunter-gatherer societies. Word of mouth drove many of their decisions, similar in nature to the decisions consumers make today about where to live, what to eat, or with whom to do business.

The social media landscape is, in 2011, the truest manifestation of online word-of-mouth behavior -- and in a ROPO context, this brings tremendous value to the search marketer's table.

Take one example of a very obvious online feedback channel: product review sites. It's not just about the ratings; these sites are loaded with very specific feedback coming from reliable sources (contributors already volunteer their time to post, so they are self-motivated to represent their opinions accurately).

These sites are a magnet for high volumes of consumer-oriented search queries. Here's a sample of some popular review sites, followed by a measure of their online footprint in organic search:

  • Epinions: 58.3 million pages in Google's search index
  • Yelp: 10.3 million
  • CNET Reviews: 9.1 million
  • Bizrate: 7.3 million
  • TripAdvisor: 2.4 million
  • Nextag: 1.9 million
  • Yahoo Shopping: 1.6 million

And it doesn't end there. Review sites are just one piece of the puzzle.

Consumers post the same type of content in forums and communities, in blog comments, on Facebook and Twitter, and many other online properties. These too are indexed by search engines (for the most part), and further fill out the online word of mouth picture.

If we expect consumer trends to hold steady, then we can expect that consumer activity driven by word-of-mouth will usually culminate in an offline resolution. It's the ROPO effect at work.

So marketers will need to ask themselves, "Are we OK with all these offline purchases, and we simply want to better leverage the trend? Or are we really looking to push our customers toward online (e-commerce) destinations?"

On the heels of this key strategic distinction, here's how to target the social media audience in search engines, guiding them in their offline consumer behavior:

1. Monitor Online Conversation

What are the most common concerns about your brand? What are its biggest assets, in the eyes of consumers? This provides strategic guidance in marketing communications, media strategy, customer service, product development... the list goes on and on.

A number of brand monitoring tools are available to acquire this type of brand insight.

2. Dig Into the ROPO Pain Points

What are the most common roadblocks to online purchase? How do consumers feel about their offline alternatives?

The volume and sentiment of this segment of consumer dialogue creates a unique profile representing your brand's ROPO audience.

3. Strike back in Search

Use search engines to guide consumers to your preferred destination, online or offline. Here are a few search marketing tactics worth a try:

  • ROPO-targeted creative: Flaunt your glowing testimonials right in the ad copy, with an incentive to buy either online or offline.

  • Alternative keyword strategy: Target keywords that include the brand name tied to modifiers like ratings, reviews, etc. Also use on competitive brands (the word-of-mouth research will clue you in to your competitive advantage, which you can use right in the ad copy).

  • AdWords seller rating extensions: Managed from your Google Merchant Center account, you can show searchers your pristine record right in the search results.

  • Product availability: If you're a brick-and-mortar retailer, you can set up a data feed to dynamically update product inventory right in the search results.

  • Cherrypick the foot traffic: A lot of people use keywords like "store locator"; this is a natural link between online and offline purchase behavior, and a good opportunity to step in and bridge the gap with a nice incentive.

Summary

Selling product is the bottom line, and the environment in which those sales revenues are generated generally takes a backseat. As brands evolve, however, they are forced to look to new growth channels within certain cost boundaries.

Staffing, inventory, rent, insurance -- these are just a few of the costs associated with maintaining an offline presence, and can provide a stimulus to increasing a brand's online presence.

Measurement challenges will continue to be a bottleneck to understanding ROPO trends, but with analytical tactics aimed at extending reach (e.g. mobile search) as well as deepening consumer insight (the word-of-mouth approach), marketers continue to inch closer to clarity.

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