August 14, 2008
Case Study

Case Study: Optimize Keyword Bids to Boost Conversions to 17% and Multiply Revenue Stream: 5 Steps

SUMMARY: Imagine your SEM-based lead-generation efforts converting at 17%. Most marketers see their conversions in the single digits – the lower single digits – when they could be much higher.

Check out how an online education site boosted their course-takers five times. Includes five lead-gen steps and keyword optimization know-how.

Last year, Chris Burford, Director, Search Marketing, Ashworth University, and his team set out to increase enrollment in their online education courses by remaking their SEM prospecting strategy. Specifically, they faced these hurdles:
- Optimizing their keywords buys to reduce their cost per enrollment
- Lifting keyword spending while maintaining a healthy ROI
- Keep prospects in the enrollment funnel for a longer time period
- Creating lifetime value by attracting people who wouldn’t take just one online course

“Retention was a big part of what we needed to do better,” Burford says. “While we wanted to get more enrollments on the front end, we also needed to get them to stay for a while and spend money.”

MarketingSherpa’s Search Marketing Benchmark Guide 2009 says that conversion rates have been hovering around 4% for the last three years. So, Burford and his team were actually doing much better with an above-average SEM conversion rate of 5.5%.

But they weren’t satisfied. They wanted conversions at more than 7% to see if that boost made a big difference in getting more students to take courses online.


Burford and his team overhauled their search engine marketing strategy while implementing several offline lead-gen tactics as well. Here are their 5 steps:

-> Step #1. Optimize keywords for ROI

They zeroed in on their key online demographic – technical career-seekers between ages 18 and 34 -- by slashing costly keywords that generated a lot of clicks but converted at a low rate.

They shifted their focus to attaining minimum keyword bids at Google, Yahoo! and MSN. With advice from their marketing vendor, they put in a system that allowed them to:

- Improve their quality score index with the search engines
The higher a keyword’s quality score, the lower its minimum bid and the better its ad position from an ROI standpoint
- Synchronize keywords with course titles
- Establish separate bids for each keyword
- Set parameters for bids on inexpensive but targeted buys over expensive ones

To achieve these targets, they utilized the backend PPC management systems respectively supplied by Google, Yahoo! and MSN. As an example, they used Google’s “broad match,” “phrase match,” “exact match” and “negative match” options.

“In a nutshell, we downsized poor-performing keywords and increased the [appearances] of keywords trending upward,” Burford explains. “We looked at this every day and optimized bids according to the results.”

-> Step #2. Multivariate test for best landing pages

Next, they used a multivariate test to optimize the template for their landing pages. Here are a few of the chief elements tested:
o Images: *real-looking* people vs. model types
o Sign-up fields: on right side vs. left side of website
o Copy: Urgency vs. softer-sell
o Color scheme: light blue vs. red

In the end, they put the best-tested elements to work. Their template used photos of real-looking people, right-hand sign-up fields with urgency copy on the left, and a light blue scheme.

Also, they ran multivariate tests for ad copy and discount offers on landing pages that solely promoted some of their individual courses. In other words, Burford and his team employed a too often-ignored best practice: optimizing landing pages for single offers.

-> Step #3. Use timed email follow-ups

Then, they turned their attention to their sales funnel for enrollment. Burford employed timed email follow-ups to support the search spends after leads gave their name, physical address, phone number and email address to receive more course information.

“We tested different intervals to find out what converted best for us after the form was submitted. And then we sent the emails at those times.”

After reviewing the test results, they emailed at these 5 junctures:

- Immediately with an auto-responder
- Next day
- 7 days later
- After 20 days
- 30 days later

If the prospect converted at any point in the cycle, the emails would halt.

-> Step #4. Craft open-ended script for phone follow-ups

They put their phone reps on the leads that didn’t convert after the auto-responder. Calls were systematically placed within 24 hours after that first email. They were crafted to last five minutes or less. And to keep dialogue fresh and natural, they used an open-ended script where reps utilized bullet points to guide them through the key talking points.

“With a [verbatim] script, we had been experiencing a noticeable disconnect between our rep and the person on the other side. So, we condensed it and used the best parts of the sales presentation. It was up to the reps to instill their own style into the calls.”

-> Step #5. Support with direct-mail pieces

If either the auto-responder email or the phone call didn’t produce a conversion, they mailed a printed tri-fold pamphlet packet.

“It broke down the pricing, sampled the course content and gave advice on what kind of career that they had shown interest in.”

If the person still didn’t covert within 30 days, Burford and his team sent them a postcard reminder as a last attempt.

Burford and his team achieved nothing short of blockbuster numbers from their SEM and lead-gen efforts. They’ve increased enrollments by five times since the makeover, he says.

“And the lifetime value of these customers, so far, has been 40% to 50% higher than what we were seeing previously. More importantly, over the last 18 months, we’ve seen those cost-per-enrollment numbers go down significantly.”

The landing page multivariate testing helped them dramatically beat their goal of accomplishing a 7% conversion rate, Burford says. They have seen conversions leap to an outstanding 17%.

“When we see conversion rates like that, we are very pleased. It means that as we budget more into search, we are getting better enrollment.”

Indeed, their minimum-bid strategy – based on the search engines’ PPC management systems – has allowed them to increase their sales-producing keywords dramatically while weeding out the bad performers. They’ve controlled costs and boosted ROI even while going from 25,000 to 500,000 keywords.

The excellent data has come with some new operational chores behind the scenes. Burford and his team have to check in daily to optimize their keyword buys. “We probably spend between 20-30 hours a week focusing on our search campaigns.”

Useful links related to this article

Creative Samples for Ashworth University's SEM Strategy:

Past Sherpa articles on search lead-gen:

“How to Lower Costs for Leads Generated via Google Search Ads (PPC)”:

“Landing Page Redesign Helps Search Marketing Campaign Convert 139% More Consumers into Sales Leads”:

Sites for SEM term definitions:

Ionic Media – the vendor behind their search strategy makeover:

Marin Software – contributed software to the project:

Silverpop – their email services provider:

Ashworth University:

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