"Everyone's got teeth, everyone needs a money-saving dental offer," says Evan Weber, Marketing Director of DentalPlans.com.
At first DentalPlans.com drove most of its traffic through email offers to rented permission-based lists - sending millions of messages weekly. But there are only so many good lists and only so many times you can send to the same list and remain effective.
So to keep sales growing, Weber diversified traffic sources, striking pay-for-performance deals with large web sites like Kmart.com and building out an extensive affiliate program with more than 10,000 partners.
One of his biggest focuses has been on pay-per-click (PPC) search marketing.
Since Weber's a self-declared do-it-yourself fiend, he keeps keyword and bidding management in-house, noting, "I get companies calling me all the time who want to manage my PPC. But I don't want to relinquish control to anyone - I prefer to keep things private."
We contacted him to find out how he manages his campaigns, and what he's learned so far... CAMPAIGN
Weber has developed a set of guiding principles to follow when choosing and managing keywords and bids.
-> Tip 1#: Keywords are a volume game
With each pay-per-click search engine, Weber takes his top key phrases and tests a few hundred clicks to see if they convert adequately. If they do, he bulks out the keywords using variations of these phrases.
It's a simple calculation, "the more keywords you have, the more clicks you can get yourself. It's a volume game. You can never have too many keywords."
But is it worth the work to manage low-volume keywords?
Definitely. Weber says his top two or three phrases dwarf any others in terms of clicks generated daily, but..."then you have another 5-10,000 keyword combinations and you add them all up and it overshadows the number the few most popular terms get."
He says his only real regret to date is not adding more relevant keywords sooner.
-> Tip 2#: Draw your keywords from your business and website, not just keyword suggestion tools
Weber's three key phrases are "dental plan", "dental insurance", and "dentist." He's drawn up a list of the top 500 cities he sells to and combined each with each of these three phrases. He says, "Before you know it, you've got 1500 listings right there, all pulling in a little bit of traffic each. It adds up."
He's done the same with US states.
He's also taken the results of other SEO efforts to feedback into the PPCSE program. For example, he contracted an SEO firm to generate visitors through Inktomi's trusted feed program, paying $0.22 per click (negotiated down from $0.25).
This campaign has seen traffic arriving and converting well through search phrases that include, for example, dentists' names. So Weber's now applying that insight to his PPC listings, based on the dentists that participate in the company's dental plans.
-> Tip 3# Don't take rejections lying down
Occasionally, a search engine rejects one of Weber's key phrases, even though the site sells a relevant product. When that happens, he gets on the phone to explain why the phrase is relevant and get the decision reversed - and it works.
-> Tip 4#: Track sales, so you can calculate your maximum bid, but be pragmatic about it
Weber makes his affiliate program management software do double duty -- he enters codes for his own campaigns in as though they were affiliates and tracks performance easily across all tactics.
To keep the process manageable, however, he doesn't assign a separate identifier to every one of his thousands of keywords.
Instead, he splits his keywords into groups, where each keyword in a group shares a common phrase. For example, Group A might be all keyword phrases which include the words "dental insurance." Then he assigns an identifier to each keyword group/search engine combination.
Then he can track keyword-driven sales in real-time, just as he might track sales driven by a particular affiliate. Knowing the conversion rate and sales data, he can compare different keyword groups and search engines, and thus knows exactly how much he can bid at each engine (for each type of keyword phrase) and still make a profit.
-> Tip 5#: Track conversions beyond the first visitor session otherwise you'll underestimate your success
The software (built in-house) allows each click to be tracked separately, but also tracks by originating click. This means it doesn't overwrite the original source when a name returns again - a distinction which is critical as you'll see in results (below.)
-> Tip 6#: Test smaller PPCSEs, but watch conversions closely
As you might expect, Weber focuses on Google AdWords and Overture. He notes, "It's all about volume and quality of traffic. Their volume way overshadows the other search engines and converts better."
But he does test the smaller pay-per-click systems, such as Ah- Ha, FindWhat and Search123, comparing their performance with benchmark figures from his Google and Overture listings.
Weber says, "If I've got a thousand clicks and my main words are "dental insurance" and "dental plans", you can't tell me I'm getting zero conversions. 1000 clicks with no conversions raises red flags. And I'm not going to keep putting money in the smaller pay-per-clicks and get nothing out of it."
-> Tip 7#: Placement isn't just about immediate ROI
Weber's aware of the principles behind optimizing bids and positions, but takes a more pragmatic view. Basically, he tries to be No.1 and No.2 in the listings as often as possible for four reasons:
a. The visibility of top positions brings in other business partners, not just direct response sales
Weber explains, "Being No.1 or No.2 has brought me other partnerships. Other people wanting to do business with us that see us there, like potential affiliates or insurance brokers wanting to earn revenue from our products."
b. The difference between No.1 and No.4 is often just three cents a click.
Weber says, "We're making a good ROI with the clicks so there's room to always be No.1 if I'm getting good conversions out of the traffic."
c. Keep competitors in check.
Weber says, "I never want prospective customers to go to one of my competitors and maybe never have the chance to see how great DentalPlans.com is. Worst case scenario, I'm No.2, and No.1 is some other site that pulls the customer in and sells them something inferior to our product, and they never even get to see our site."
d. Generate more return traffic
Weber's noticed that people are more likely to come back to his site and purchase on a subsequent visit if he's occupying one of the top two positions in the paid listings.
(Editor's note: This positioning logic won't apply in every case, since it depends on bid structures and prices, target audience behavior, your business model and whether you have a fixed or flexible budget.)
-> Tip 8#: Let affiliates bid with you
One of the hot issues in affiliate marketing is whether merchants should let their affiliates bid against them at search engines.
Weber takes a relaxed approach, "I want to be above them, but I love it. Say you go to Google and type in "dental plan" and five of the eight listings [eventually] point to DentalPlans.com. What more could you ask for? It's great exposure."
Plus, letting affiliates bid can also get you sales from those searchers who burrow down to the lower paid listings, which is where affiliate sites normally rank.
-> Tip 9#: Be pragmatic about writing your ad copy
Weber doesn't optimize copy for each separate keyword. Why not? He says, "I probably should to some extent, but we are focusing on one specific product and it's really not necessary."
Instead, he uses a generic approach, with similar copy across all keywords. Here it's worth noting that Weber's been doing email prospecting for a long time for DentalPlans.com so already has a good idea of what titles and copy work for his product. Others would need to test headlines and copy.
His ads focus on price, choice and bonus, so a typical ad would be:
Title: Discount dental coverage from $79 a year
Text: Choose from over 15 different dental plans, over 100,000 dentists nationwide. Get 3 months free when you join today.
He does adjust the copy slightly for each different PPC program. In particular, he notes you can be a little more effusive and attention seeking in the smaller engines than with Google and Overture. So, his current FindWhat campaign, for example, looks like this:
Title: Instant Dental Coverage with Huge Savings
Text: 15 National and regional plans starting at just $79 a year with over 100,000+ dentist listings nationwide, no waiting period, no set up fee. Plus 3 Months FREE today!
-> Tip 10#: Keep an eye on contextual ads
With both Google and Overture launching contextual ad programs (text-ads that appear on Web site pages with non-search content, such as an article, that relate to the subject of the ad) to supplement the standard search engine paid ads, Weber's testing ads very carefully.
Although clicks are low ("I'm getting 0.17% CTR - that's pretty weak") Weber worries less about that and more about tracking conversion rates and finding out exactly where the ads are appearing so he can judge potential branding and visibility impact.
DentalPlans.com pulls in between 800,000 and one million unique visitors a month. Paid search listings account for about 20% of those visitors.
- CTR from Google and Overture are normally between 8% and 10%, assuming Weber has the top one or two positions.
- The average conversion rate for the site is around 1.5%, but conversion rates for clicks from Google and Overture paid listings fluctuate between 2 and 5%.
- For Weber's audience, Overture clicks convert "slightly better" than Google clicks. (Editor's note: This result does vary with the market - we've interviewed marketers getting quite the opposite.)
- Weber's not overwhelmed with the results from smaller paid search systems. The number of clicks and conversions are low. FindWhat, for example, is converting at around 0.5%, while some others are converting at 0%.
He's tolerating lower conversion rates (but not 0%) because the lower PPC prices compensate, plus he knows he's picking up affiliates and leads for business products from the listings as well.
- Results from contextual ads (such as Google AdSense) are troubling so far, more from lack of data than anything else. "I don't know where we're being shown. It's kind of mysterious. I know we're participating in it, but I don't (yet) know if it's getting us many sales."
- Continual search marketing adds up in more sales over time because consumers rely on search results to find you -- even if they've been to your site in the past.
Weber says, "The longer you run the campaign, the more conversions you get over time from previous traffic. We know that 30% of our sales are from return visitors." These are people who found him once from a paid link, and then returned through a paid link (instead of surfing direct) when they were ready to convert.
The number one thing Weber stresses to all marketers interested in search ads is not to make them your end-all and be-all.
True online marketing success comes from a balanced approach, "You need your search engines, your PPC, your paid feeds, emails, affiliates etc. And you need a product that converts. With search marketing it's a constant battle. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist - it's pretty self-explanatory."
Weber's tracking software is an in-house program, but he uses
this company to handle his Inktomi feed: